Tag Archives: race

72km of Extreme – Salomon Wadi Bih 2017

The Salomon Wadi Bih run is a UAE sporting institution, having started 25 years ago, and that sees athletes take on a variety of distances, both in a solo capacity and as teams. Having had my first taste of this event in 2015 I was seduced back, this time to take on the full 72km distance.

Comfortable ‘Camping’

I camped the last time, finding the experience really enjoyable and part of the entire Wadi Bih package. My intention had been to do the same this year but I ended up booking a room at the Golden Tulip on account of a friend, who was due to accompany me but ultimately decided not to come along. It transpired, however,  that in spite of the insanely inflated price, the weather that weekend made it such that having a room was an absolute blessing! I still made the obligatory stop off at Lulu Hypermarket in Dibba though in order to pick up supplies, determined as I was NOT to rely on eating at the hotel. Hint for anyone looking to stay at the Golden Tulip on the weekend of Wadi Bih: dig deep as they charge a FORTUNE that weekend! My room was 280 OR for two nights, which ultimately worked out, with taxes, to about 3000 AED, or $700! Ouch!
Lulu hypermarket, Dibba
Great place to stock up on supplies before the crossing at Dibba. Great schwarmas for one thing!

Paperwork. Oh The Joy.

Wadi Bih pass collection
The first part of the Wadi Bih challenge. My advice is arrive early.

I knew from previous experience of the border at Dibba that it can take a little while to get through, and with the weekend and Wadi Bih event taking place it was important to arrive early in order to pick up my papers and get to the hotel before things got too busy. In spite of arriving in good time what I found was sadly a scene of disorganisation, with several people having failed to find their papers, which were to be found in a multitude of lever-arch files and that we were to search through ourselves. With no real apparent order to the papers – we had been told they were organised initially by country and then in alphabetical order, the latter did not appear to be case. Coupled with the very high winds that were gusting in from all sides of the open pagoda, and the threat of rain, the entire process didn’t strike me as being very well thought out. In spite of having submitted my documents over a month ago I was unable to find my pass and so had to join a pretty big group of runners in a similar position as we had to wait for our passport and visa details to be resubmitted and our papers reissued. Cue over 2 hours of waiting, during which time I entertained myself by consulting for them on the optimal construction of a wind barrier 🙂  and taking a stroll down to the fish market. Eventually, they brought a computer and printer to the site so they were able to expedite the process and by 6.30pm I had my papers and was able to continue my journey. Thankfully there was no delay at the border gate and so I sailed through with no issue. I was, at that point, very grateful that I was not camping after all on account of it now being dark and very, very windy! Quite the contrast to my last Wadi Bih experience.

First Time – Clueless

Given that I had never run this kind of ultra distance before and was thus pretty clueless I sought out some friendly advice. Chops, a friend who had run the 72km a couple of years before, was forthcoming with several absolute pearls of wisdom on a number of matters, including what to pack/ take with me on the run, and what to expect. 72km is a long way to run in one go, especially with some of the meaty climbs that Wadi Bih has. The kind of gems he proferred included packing some wet wipes in case of an emergency loo break, something that would only seem obvious if and when the need arose. Thankfully my day passed without any gastrointestinal upsets and I was able to focus solely on the running.
Knowing what to wear for an ultra marathon was another consideration that I hadn’t really had to ponder before. I was advised not to wear lycra tights on account of them getting very hot later in the day, although given the day we ended up with they may have been a great option after all. I ultimately opted for a pretty standard get-up, choosing to sacrifice toasty legs in the morning for the freedom to move unencumbered, wearing race shorts and calve compression socks. Taking along a spare, dry pair of socks, which I swapped into at the halfway point was an idea I was glad I went with, as the feeling of fresh feet after five hours of trudging did wonders for my energy levels. One of the absolute essential elements of an ultra-runner’s ‘outfit’ however is lubrication and so I ensured I was well greased up with the trusty 3B cream and had absolutely no chafing issues for the entire 9 hours that I was out and active.
I decided at the start line to don my Patagonia base layer and was sooooooo glad I did. However, I only put it on after one of the spectators commented on the fact that I was going to be “really cold” and after I experienced the howling wind that I met on turning the corner to the bag drop. Rather than leave the layer in my half-way bag, as had been my initial plan, I decided to wear it from the start after all and soon thanked my lucky stars I did! A number of runners were heading out on the course wearing just singlets and not carrying any nutrition, which I found either extremely brave or utterly misguided – I couldn’t quite decide!
From the very start the winds were relentless and as we exited the Golden Tulip in the dark we hit a wall of wind. I was so happy that I was wearing my Oakley transitional lenses, base layer and snood as not only did I feel protected from the wind chill but also from the sporadic flying debris and dust that was whipped up and flung at us at regular intervals. At a number of points the wind was so strong that it physically stopped forward progress and we had to fight in order to stop actually going backwards. Given that we started the race at 4.30am it was pitch black and as we left the lamp-lit glow of the housing areas and joined the road leading up into the wadi itself, the only light available was that from our own, individual head lamps and the occasional car, both support and police, that passed. Hearing the howl, like a jumbo jet coming in to land, of the wind as it hurtled in gusts down the wadi towards us, was a surreal experience and were it not for the fact that there were a whole group of like-minded nutters out on the course experiencing the same, it could have been terrifying. There were umpteen moments whilst I was being pummelled by a particularly savage gust that I chuckled to myself and wondered out loud what it was that I was actually doing. I mean, really?! I signed up for this?! I was voluntarily subjecting myself to these horrendous conditions, on a course I did not know, over a distance that I wasn’t even sure I would be able to complete in one go and all for what? Bragging rights? Personal achievement? I honestly didn’t know. I guess I just needed to know I could do it, or at the least that I had tried. I knew from having gone the distance in Ironman races that I could cope with being out on course for extended periods of time but what I didn’t know was whether I had the physical fitness and mental toughness to run not only an ultra marathon but one that ascended over 1000 feet. Especially in the kind of conditions we were being dealt. The severity of the conditions were driven home even more by the briefing from the organisers that said they may even need to shorten the course or put an early end to the race should the conditions worsen and especially if rain were to fall higher up the wadi, such was the real risk of flash flooding taking place.

Fit Enough?

As much as I had really intended to train a lot more for the event I ultimately fell way short of the recommended volume and there is no way I arrived at the start line having run as much as I should have. As such, I was feeling pretty apprehensive as the race approached and had even contemplated asking if I could drop out of the 72km distance and perhaps run the 50km or 30km again. However, I rationalised my decision to stick with the full distance by telling myself that the very worst that could happen was that I simply did not finish the race. That was it. I wanted to see the top of Wadi Bih, as I was denied two years ago by running the 30km distance, and so I vowed to do my best and see where and how far that took me. That is how I found myself lining up at the start of the Wadi Bih 72km race 2017.
“Ultramarathons are eating events with some running thrown in.” This was the advice I was given by an experienced trail runner and coach and chimed with my knowledge and experience from iron distance triathlon. As such I knew that I needed to go into Wadi Bih with some decent nutrition planned. The trouble was that I had never run an ultra marathon before so wasn’t certain as to what would ultimately work best. Race entirely on gels? Good way to get the shits was my thought on that. What solids should I take then? Dates and fruit seemed a good bet, as did chewy/ gummy sweets – simple to guzzle down, carry and packed full of energy. One thing I also remembered from Ironman was how good it was to get some protein down at some point during the race. As such I ended up packing a small packet of beef jerky in addition to a smaller, beef jerky stick, the latter proving to be the better option for an on-the-run snack. In the end I found that I took way too much food, returning with most of what I took, especially given that the two aid stations en-route had a good selection of snacks, such as chocolate bars, which I ended up relying on for the second half of the race. In addition to my 2 litre Camelpak containing Aqualyte and which I topped up with water only once, I also took a handheld Amphipod, with water, honey and those oh-so-amazing little wonder-seeds that are chia. I figured that if they’re good enough for the famed Tarahumara ultra-runners then they should be good for me. It was sipping on that solution that saw me right for the first third of the race before I started drawing on the other resources I brought along. A friend, David, who was also out on the course and who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to ultra-running said several times during the day that it was vital to maintain good nutrition and to drink more than you feel like drinking. The latter was good advice indeed especially as I noticed that my urine was getting more and more concentrated, in spite of not really feeling particularly thirsty. His words and the feedback from my own body drove me to start increasing my fluid intake, a move that I am certain held off any cramp during the race. In previous years, the latter hours of the race are usually run in hot, sunny conditions, with keeping cool and well hydrated the main concerns. This year, however, the emphasis was on keeping warm, which meant adequately fueling, whilst actively remembering to drink enough.
As the countdown to the start commenced I started telling myself that the best thing I could do was avoid the temptation to charge off with many of the other runners, including the eventual winner, who raced off as though it were a 10km sprint we were undertaking. In some regards it was actually quite comforting to be snug and safe inside my base layer, snood pulled up over my mouth and nose and wraparound lenses protecting my eyes from the elements. Keeping the pace to one at which I could have easily talked was my approach, slowed at regular intervals by sudden hurricane-strength gusts of wind thundering into us. I was pleasantly surprised as I found myself on a short hill ascent and descent that I recognised as being close to the 15km turnaround point from the 30km race I came second in two years before – I was feeling good and had covered the first 15km feeling strong with plenty remaining in the tank. Shortly after that point the sun started to rise and the rugged beauty of the wadi, with towering cliffs either side, began to come into view. A less welcome change was that I started to experience sporadic twinges of pain across my left knee, which I recognised as being ITB discomfort. I was initially able to ignore it, continuing to jog in spite of it, but as the kilometres ticked up the discomfort became pain and I was forced to walk more often than I really would have liked.
Wadi Bih race
A rough overview of the route of the 72km Wadi Bih race – out & back.

At about the 28km mark I paused for a few moments in order to dig out some food and saw the eventual race winner run past, back toward Dibba, looking flushed but in good form. How he had managed to comfortably scale the wadi still wearing a road-running singlet was anyone’s guess but it was an impressive feat nonetheless. Resigned to the fact that I was certainly not in the running for a podium spot I pushed on, soon being caught up by fellow Dubai Trail Runners, Sam and David, and stayed with Sam and a runner from Bahrain, Toby, for the 3km super ascent, which was absolutely taken at a walk. As we neared the top a descending runner breathily informed us that the “worst was yet to come,” which initially seemed like a bit of a negative thing to tell us until we heard the ominous roar of the wind tearing across the electricity pylons at the top of the slope before we turned the final corner and were hit head on by the full force of what felt like a force 5 hurricane! Cue a further few kilometres of bone-chattering wind-chill and stop-in-your-tracks headwinds before the 36km mark and the hallowed turnaround came into view. This marked an important psychological milestone for me as I had told myself that as long as I reached the halfway point then I was going to finish the distance, even if I ended up walking it. Knowing that I had made it that far and through the worst of the ascent was fortifying and after snapping an obligatory photo and topping up on fluids and food I started out on the second, final half, determined to avoid the seriously dark clouds rapidly encroaching on the horizon – the same clouds that were responsible for dumping snow on the top of Jebel Jais that very day and that had the ominous air of a fast-approaching, hostile army set on unleashing mayhem.

Wadi Bih 2017 turnaround
The sweetest sight (after the finish) of the day: the 36km turnaround.

Breathtakingly Beautiful

The scenery in this part of the gulf really was worth the effort of reaching, with the expansive yet intricately patterned rockscapes looking like something directly out of a Wild West set in the badlands of Utah. Despite the fact that I took a photo, even trying to capture some of the atmosphere with the 360-degree camera, the fact remains that the only way to truly appreciate the wonder of this area is to visit it in person. Standing atop the wadi and looking out over the surrounding mountain-tops to the distance drove home just how far from the urban, modern comforts of Dubai we really were, and it was refreshing and exhilirating in equal measure.
As much as the thought of running downhill seems infinitely better than the opposite, if the gradient is particularly steep then it can be just as uncomfortable to descend as it is to climb. I found that one tactic for the steeper sections of the course was to pretend I was skiing on a steep piste, carving from one side to the other in a zig-zag pattern down the slope. This did draw some quizzical looks from fellow runners but the important thing was that it seemed to actually work, significantly reducing the strain on my knees. By the time I got to the bottom of the main climb I felt as though I had discovered my second wind and even felt confident enough in my pace to remove the base layer and run the rest of the distance in my training top, although I did come close to digging it out again as the rain eventually caught up with me and the temperature fell through the floor close to the end.
It certainly did wind up being a race of two halves for me, with the first seeing me arrive at the turnaround in pain and feeling as though I was destined to hobble my way back to the finish, whilst the second remarkably saw me rediscover my running legs and enabled me to keep up a great pace for the last 30km, ultimately coming home in 22nd place, with a time of 8hrs 43 mins, out of a total of 39 finishers and about 77 who started out at 4.30 that morning. I found the entire experience to be a real rollercoaster of emotions, from humoured bemusement in the morning, as we found ourselves heading out in atrocious conditions to take on a challenge that most sane people would consider insane, to pained amazement at the stunning, rugged, expansive raw beauty of the wadi and the surrounding mountains, made all the more wild and spectacular by the raging of Mother Nature. To have the second half of the experience transform so completely as I found my legs and ran the final 30kms in excellent form, only to hit a wall again in the closing stages, all the while pushing myself on, willing my tired, aching, wind-and-rain battered and chilled body towards the end, I have to confess that this day made both of the Ironman races I have undertaken feel like walks-in-the-park in comparison. I laughed, I (very nearly) cried; I was in pain, I was flying; I was fatigued and broken, I was energised and motivated. I truly experienced everything I could in one monumental day. I am so glad that I stuck with the full distance and exposed myself to what was ultimately a huge personal challenge. I now know, once more, that I am capable of more than I initially imagined and my first thoughts after crossing the finish line were, “hmm, if I was really race fit then I wonder how much faster I could have gone?!” That is the joy and curse combined of athletic and personal challenges – they’re never really complete.
Wadi Bih 2017
72km of running and my first ultra-marathon done.

Climate Chaos

Arriving back at the Golden Tulip that afternoon, the entire outside area looked like a war zone, with debris everywhere and reports of several tents having actually been blown into the ocean! It seemed that in spite of feeling royally robbed in terms of the price being charged for a room, I was among the lucky runners to have the sanctuary of a warm, dry, draft-free and comfortable room in which to kick back in. Camping, after all, would NOT have been such fun. I joined the rest of the day’s runners and assorted family and supporters for well-earned and much appreciated food and enjoyed the presentation of prizes to the day’s various race winners – the prizes, incidentally, were awesome with each winner receiving, among other treats, a brand new Suunto multi-sport watch! Some of the times for each distance were truly incredible and it drove home just how talented some of our local amateur athletes really are – they’re literal superhumans!
In spite of having every intention to enjoy a cool, refreshing post-race beer whilst swapping tales of the day with other 72’ers, I simply ended up collapsing on my bed where I stayed until Saturday morning, when I woke to a very different scene outside and legs that felt as though they had been roughly detached from my body, put through a rusty mangle and hapharzardly re-sutured in place. Lets just say I was walking – nay, hobbling – like an old man and am still hearing complaints from my legs nearly a week later. As uncomfortable as my legs were, it was ultimately that good kind of pain; the one that reminds you of how hard you’ve worked and how much you’ve achieved.
Donning my Saloman Wadi Bih T-shirt, I joined the crowd of returning team runners as they continued to pour in to the Golden Tulip, basking in the glorious sunshine and the picture-postcard setting of the hotel and adjacent beach – a far cry from the same location just the day before. Having caught up with friends running the shortened and altered route team race (the wadi had been thoroughly washed out by rain the night before and was impassable) I checked out and started the journey back over to Dubai, but not before a good two hour wait in a line of traffic in order to traverse the border crossing back into the UAE. I hear that some people endured a five hour wait, so I guess I was one of the fortunate ones.
Golden Tulip, Dibba
Saturday was in stark contrast to the day before! Calm skies & sunshine after the howling winds & freezing rain of Friday.
All in all it was a great weekend, complete with high drama, spectacular scenery and a massive sense of personal and collective achievement. The event celebrated it’s 25th anniversary this year and long may it continue, enjoying a further quarter century of challenging runners.
For more information on the Wadi Bih race, head to the website here.

German Odyssey – Challenge Roth

“Solar Hill is like a religious experience!” With claims like that how could any self-respecting triathlete not want to race Challenge Roth at least once?! I had long been aware of the legend of Roth, Germany, the home of Challenge and one of the longest running races on the calendar, for a number of years, being the stage for multiple incredible records in it’s history and considered by many to be their favorite race ever.
I had attempted to secure a coveted spot for 2015’s race but missed out by seconds – the slots sell out in moments so one has to be ready and waiting online as soon as the site goes live, much like trying to get tickets for a major rock festival! Having learned my lesson and hearing even more tales of how memorable the race was I was determined to have another go, fresh as I was off the back of my inaugural Ironman in Lake Tahoe and clearly having forgotten the punishing training regime and discomfort of the actual race, such is the nature of both time passed and memories of the endorphin high above and beyond the pain. I had, like many before me and I am sure many after me, claimed rather unconvincingly that “one would probably be enough” as far as iron distance races went. No-one believed me and, rather predictably, it wasn’t long before the lure of the long course whispered to me again, the focus being on getting, first, into Roth and then, second, fit for Roth.
Having learned my lesson the year before I was ready and waiting, credit card details primed and finger on the mouse as the entries for Roth went live. As Sod’s Law would have it I actually secured two places this time around and had to forfeit one as that was all I needed. I was in. Cue the requisite training, working again with Trace Rogers and her new GroWings team, as we worked on building the fitness that I had honed over the previous two years. I will be the first to admit that my preparation for Roth was nowhere near as intense as for Tahoe, in part on account of work demands and schedules and also, quite honestly, because I felt significantly less pressure for this race. In my mind Roth was to be enjoyed above and beyond any other goal. It was also, logic dictated, meant to be a less physically demanding race compared to the high altitude course at Tahoe. Add to that the fact that I had established a pretty decent base level of endurance fitness, which all meant that I suffered less guilt if the odd session were missed or curtailed. That’s not to say I didn’t train: I certainly did. Hard and enthusiastically. Just not as hard as in previous years.
Fast forward several months and I was one of several Dubai-triathletes who jetted out, leaving behind the intense heat of summer for the kinder climes of Europe and specifically Bavaria. My parents were, once again, eager to join me in this iron adventure, being my staunch supporters in Tahoe and providing even more justification to tack on a decent holiday afterwards. Our first few days were spent in Nuremberg itself, starting our stay, quite by chance on account of some channel hopping in our apartment, by watching a BBC documentary “How To Become A German,” which was actually filmed in the city and provided some entertaining facts by which to start our experience. For example, we now had an official pork and beer consumption figure to aim for to truly feel German! Nuremberg was a beautiful city to explore, full of history, some of it dark but important to acknowledge, but more importantly now full of wonderful people, incredible culture, stunning architecture and food and drink options that satisfied our appetites very well. I even found the time to enjoy some of the city’s training infrastructure, joining an early morning swim session at one of the very modern, clean and popular indoor pools and running around the huge park close to our accommodation, which was part training run, part historical tour.
A couple of days before the actual race, we moved closer to Roth itself, although getting from the city to the race would not have been an issue or even taken very long, choosing to stay with a wonderful lady, Hanne, in her family’s fairytale cottage just outside the classically beautiful town of Schwabach. It was there that we had the good fortune to meet a Munich first-time iron triathlete, Dirk, and his family, all of whom reinforced the main memory of the trip, that being how incredibly friendly, fun, interesting and caring the Bavarian people are. Hanne and her husband, for example, made sure that all of us were fed the most exquisite meal of spaghetti bolognese the night before the race – our very own ‘pasta party’ – and were waiting by the door at midnight after the race, full breakdown of each of our races and a congratulatory beer in hand! As far as hosts went, they were truly champions of the art.

First Impressions

Challenge Roth_WelcomeThe first thing that becomes evident when entering the town of Roth, and Hipoltstein, where the swim takes place, is how into the event everyone truly is. Its as if the entire area comes out to welcome triathletes and their families, with signs everywhere and references to the race set against the backdrop of Disney-esque castles, postcard streets and rolling countryside that could have come straight out of the Hobbit.
Expo entrance_Roth 2016The race village, expo and stadium, where the fireworks and finish were to be found, was a short walk from the centre of town and one was immediately reminded of the importance and pedigree of the race on the approach, with a series of displays showing details of past races, their winners and amazing photos. We arrived relatively early to register and even then the place was packed and buzzing with excited activity. Registration was straightforward and I left the marquee officially branded a ‘Participant’ and with a nice new backpack for my dad to accompany his Ironman Lake Tahoe one. The obligatory stop at the official Challenge store – surprisingly small it must be said, although this is based on a comparison to Ironman events, where it seems everything imaginable is available for purchase as a branded product – where a new set of caps were procured and some last minute shopping for essential items, including spare CO2 canisters, a race must.
Challenge Shop 2016
Challenge Roth 2016_Expo
Challenge Roth 2016 Expo Site
Swim practice_Roth 2016
The Tri-Dubai ‘Loons’

I chose to join the Saturday morning practice swim such that I could check my bike in afterwards, and joined a crowd of similarly neoprene-clad “loons” (my mum’s observation) in testing out the fresh but thankfully not utterly freezing waters of the Main-Donau Canal, the famous stage for Challenge Roth’s swim, with it’s straightforward single loop, out and back course that promised a fast swim time and unprecedented levels of spectator support as onlookers cheered from the banks in clear view. The water itself, whilst refreshing, was certainly not clear and I was advised to do my best not to swallow any of it, especially given that several people suffered GI issues and one person I know had developed an ear infection following the swim last year. The fact that the weather in the week leading up to the race had actually been unseasonably cool lessened the risk in 2016 as I guess the bacteria levels in the canal were probably expected to be lower this year.

Swim exit_Challenge Roth
Swim exit at Challenge Roth 2016

A few relaxed lengths and the obligatory spot of in-water photography later I was satisfied that the swim would not be too daunting an experience and so joined mum and dad for some “kaffee und kuchen” by the banks, watching others enjoy the water, before filling the time between the swim and check-in with sightseeing down the road, exploring the charming little town of Hipoltstein and scaling it’s castle for impressive views out over the surrounding area.

Swim exit_close up_Challenge Roth 2016
Bike check-in is always an exciting part of any race, especially the big, key events, as it is truly the moment at which it all gets real and the nervous trepidation starts to ramp up. What was hours before an empty green space with multiple pallets lined up in rows was rapidly transforming into a collective dream-park, each pristinely cleaned, tuned and individualised bike representing that person’s arrival on this very special stage. Bike racked and a couple of physical walk-throughs of my planned journey from the swim through transition and to my bike later I collected my parents, dropping off my run bag with the Challenge team and then navigated the crowds off the site and headed back to Roth in time for the race briefing.
Transition 1_Challenge Roth 2016
Transition starts to fill with bikes

The weather during our first week in Germany was, it would be accurate to say, changeable, lurching from cloudy and chilly to brilliant moments of bright sunshine and an equally impressive jump in the temperature. From initially worrying that race day might be “dull, cloudy and cold,” which would “suck” I soon started to change my tune, hoping that the day would, after all, remain somewhat cool given how fierce the sun seemed to be when it did make an appearance. That’s still the one element of everyone’s race that we can’t influence: the conditions. They simply are what they will be on the day and it is our job to suck it up and adapt/ cope as best we are able. One of the main bits of advice I took from the rather hot, stuffy and, frankly, protracted race briefing was to wear some arm warmers on the bike, as it was predicted to be pretty nippy the following morning. I am glad I took that advice and promptly added a pair to my kit collection as they did actually make a good deal of difference to my ultimate experience of the bike leg.

With the briefing complete and bike checked-in all that was left was to head on home, get some decent food on board, try and get some sleep – who actually ever sleeps properly the night before a big race?! – and remind myself that I was as prepared for the day as I could hope to be and that I should probably set two alarms, just in case.

RACE DAY

One of the many differences between Ironman and Challenge, in my limited experience at least, is the fact that Challenge provide really professional race number tattoos for athletes whereas Ironman usually just involves getting your race number scrawled on in permanent marker. Getting to feel even moderately professional as an athlete is really fun and can help get you in the right head space pre-race, with even the application of the numbers providing a moment of quiet, concentrated reflection on what is to come. I like that. Alarms pre-empted, as much breakfast as my nervous stomach could manage – and what a spread! Hanne had once again surpassed herself – and mum and dad roused from their own beds – the price of being an iron athlete supporter and reliant on the same athlete to drive. Given that this was my first year racing, it was not simple for non-driving supporters to get back to Roth from Hipoltstein after the swim and I frankly didn’t fancy trekking back over there to collect the car after the race, we opted to park up in Roth, where mum and dad remained for the entire day and I availed myself of the athlete shuttle bus to get to the swim. Seeing the huge tailback on the approach to the swim start whilst the bus sailed past everyone I told myself that I had made the correct decision even though it did mean my parents missing out on one of the highlights of the Challenge Roth experience.
The atmosphere on site was electric and it was a pleasant, clear, slightly cool morning as I finalised my bike preparation, taping on my main drinks reservoir as I had seen others do – they clearly knew something I didn’t! Track pump borrowed, my tyres received their final check before I dropped my bike transition bag in place and paced the route from the swim exit, through the bag area, into the changing tent and out to my bike. Satisfied I knew the route well enough to ensure a smooth transition from the water, I made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Chapel of the Nervous Triathlete to make my donation, along with all of the other pilgrims, before finding a quiet-enough corner of the bike park in which to sit and wind down before I needed to properly wind up. I was joined at this point by fellow GroWings athlete, and first time iron-distance triathlete, Alex, who had chosen what was effectively his home race with which to pop his long-distance cherry. I offered a little, hopefully, helpful reassurance but knew from personal experience that at that stage the preparation was complete and the best thing to allow was quiet contemplation. The time was fast approaching and so the wetsuit was half-donned, shoes relinquished to the day bag, with this being dropped off with the Challenge team and representing the final ritual stage before the race itself. Now all that was left was to wait my turn and race my race.

Swim

I made my way towards the holding area for the swim and given that I was in one of the later waves to set off, found a spot from where I could view the swim start and watch the athletes before me. There I met fellow Dubai athletes Lynette, Vicky and (whilst technically now resident back in Germany, he is still considered a Tri-Dubai’er, especially as he was sporting the team colours) Florian, all of us quickly agreeing that our choice of ‘prime viewing’ location came with one drawback, that being the fact it was directly behind the portable loos! Sucking in lungfuls of other peoples’ anxiety was perhaps not the most advantageous – and certainly not fragrant – preparation one could make. Still, the view was good and the stinky wafts infrequent enough to see us remain and watch the pros, including the unstoppable Jan Frodeno, and Kenny head off, with all of us involuntarily jumping as the cannon went off. That was it; the race had officially kicked off and before long the age groupers were off and out, wave after wave kicking off to rapturous applause and the beautiful sight of hot air balloons rising from the misty of the fields on the opposite bank.
I had been expecting to spot my bosses during the week, both of them returning to Roth for what was their third (?) start, but had thus far alluded them. I did, however, spot Monique as she walked to the swim start, each giving the other a good luck hug and discovering that Malcolm was in one of the much later waves to go. My wave eventually came around but not before I had the chance to witness Frodeno sail past on his homeward leg, moving through the water like a graceful otter and minutes ahead of the rest of the field. With a start like that his chances of breaking the course record were on good footing. Go Jan!
And then it was my turn. The Challenge team did a sterling job right from the word go with rousing the crowd and getting the athletes primed, and we entered the water to the sounds of some epic rock anthem before swimming the short distance to the start rope. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I actually had some personal space in the water in spite of being in the second row from the front and as the gun finally sounded I was able to immediately stretch out and get some good strokes in. Whilst always aware of other athletes around me and only having to stop swimming at one point on account of an absence of spotting from one enthusiastic racer who cut across me, I really enjoyed the swim, finding the water refreshing rather than freezing and appreciating the distance markers on the bank. As I traversed the turnaround buoy I was pleasantly surprised at how civilised the swim was so far, quietly congratulating Challenge for opting for a wave start as opposed to mass. The waters got a little busier on the return leg, as sections of it did feel narrower and I found myself catching up with and passing earlier waves, always a bit of a confidence boost in any race. The crowds started to build once again as we neared the finish, although there was the slightly frustrating experience of having to swim straight past the exit and continue for what, it must be said, felt like a lot further than was expected, before making the final turn and powering on towards transition. Once again, the Challenge team were on hand to make life a little easier, as teams of volunteers were stood, waist deep in the water assisting athletes to their feet and sending them off up the ramp into transition. Stage one complete.

T1

You know those memes that fly around Facebook where they have the four pictures and captions such as “What my friends think I do… What I think I do…” etc? Well in my mind whenever I exit the water in a triathlon I imagine myself to be this pumped, super focused all-star athlete powering up the runway before expertly grabbing my bag and seamlessly hitting transition, all in one superbly fluid motion of grace. What I actually become is the equivalent of Bambi having a hypoglycaemic episode, legs absolutely not listening to the instructions being sent to them and my efforts to stay on the correct channel to pick up my bag failing miserably. So, an unintended hop to the left, recovery, return to the correct channel, spot my bag, fumble for it and somehow pick it up before beginning the rapid scan of the transition tent for a space where I could make the shift from amphibious creature to terrestrial one. That is how I would describe my Challenge Roth T1 experience.
Once inside the changing tent, a huge open plan affair, it became apparent that it was true what people say about Germany, this race and nudity – it matters not. What would be utterly banned in Dubai simply isn’t an issue in Bavaria, as naked butts and full frontals, both male and female, flapped around merrily without a second thought to who was able to see. The volunteers must have literally seen it all that morning – I certainly did! Still, everyone had just one thing on their mind and that was to get out to their bikes as quickly as possible.
I am not famed for my rapid transitions – just ask my exasperated coach – and Roth was no exception. Whilst Frodeno made it out in seconds, I took about ten minutes ensuring I was as dry as possible, before changing into cycle – and, by default, run – gear, ensuring to grease up generously and slap on the sunscreen, as although the sun was yet to put in a meaningful appearance, my experience up to that point of it’s power during the trip was that it would come out with teeth. Arm warmers on – with some serious assistance from the nearest volunteer – and I was about ready to grab my bike and make like a real cyclist for what I hoped would be a maximum of about 5.5 hours….. How little I knew of what was in store at this stage!

Bike

I was feeling good from the outset, quickly accelerating off from the start and overtaking several other athletes before the first sharp left hand turn towards Roth and off out onto the cycle route. My bike had been serviced and cleaned (although I was not impressed that it had been packed away sopping wet! Cue rust…. not cool) prior to being packed up, and there had been no issues that I was aware of from a mechanical point of view. Anyway, I had spares and enough CO2 to keep me going in the worst case. It wasn’t long, unfortunately, before that case descended. And descend in spectacular style it did.
A flat less than 10km out?! Seriously?! The first I knew of it was that I felt that foreboding sense of acute deceleration and looked back to see the back tyre blown. A small expletive was uttered before I hopped off and quickly set to replacing it – after all, what else was there to do?! Of either of the tyres to get a flat in the rear is the worst as it is just a bit more of a pain in the arse to take the wheel off, disengage the gears and chain and generally get it all fixed up, but it had to be done. Anyway, cue looks of pity from fellow racers as they zoomed past and I put into practice that which I had not had to contend with in any previous race. Thank God for those YouTube viewings!
Before too long I had a new tube in place, after ensuring that there was nothing sharp or loose hiding in my tyre, and set to inflating it using one of the many CO2 canisters that I was carrying. Whilst the pressure wasn’t quite as good as I would have liked, I was back in charge of a functional bike and so back on the road and into the race. I knew there were bike stations at a few of the aid stations so was confident I could always just top up the air if necessary when I reached the next one. At least, I thought, I had gotten my one bit of bad luck out of the way.
Cue second bit of bad luck for the day, and the one that I honestly thought meant the end of my race and history repeating itself in so far as “year one = warm-up; year two = complete the race.” As we started the first of the real climbs of the day I shifted gears and suddenly heard my chain pop off. Looking down I saw that the chain had been dumped over the main ring, forcing me to stop for the second time in the race so far and less than twenty clicks out of transition! I replaced the chain but then noticed the bigger issue…… the rear derailleur was engaging the spokes of my back wheel meaning that it could not rotate properly! Shit! Not seeing any good reason for why this might be the case and recognising it for what it clearly was – a race-ending mechanical issue – I uttered my second expletive of the day, this more heartfelt than the first – and desperately wracked my brain for possible options. That’s when the first of the day’s superhero spectators came to the rescue. Seeing I was in strife, a guy came out of nowhere asking what the issue was. I explained in pigeon German to which he gestured for me to follow him a little further up the hill. There he and his friend diagnosed the issue – the derailleur was overextending on the highest gear, meaning that it dumped the chain and hit the rear wheel – and so the solution was to simply NOT move to my highest gear. This had never been an issue before and this was the second point at which I questioned the value of getting my bike serviced so close to an actual race – had the gears been adjusted thus leading to this issue? No time to really dwell on the question as I was back on and with a little push to get me started, accompanied by enthusiastic shouts of “Danke! Vielen Dank!!” from me, I was off again. Surely that had to be it for the day! Any more issues and I was surely going to be looking at a disappointing end.
As I exited the first aid section I spotted a spectator with a track pump and so stopped, asking to use it quickly to get my rear tyre up to a correct pressure. It was almost a laugh out loud moment then when I felt the by now familiar sensation of my rear tyre rapidly deflating a short distance from the station and at the bottom of a nice downhill section that set everyone up perfectly for a lovely flat straight. Cue third, louder expletive, this time uttered in German, and a fourth as I reached inside my bike pouch to find no spare tube! WTF?! I could have sworn I had at least two! I had to have another one!!! But I didn’t. I was without a spare but very much with a flat. Shit indeed. Hmm… wait for the bike tech, not knowing where it was, or start walking towards the next aid station, hoping to be met en route by the techs? No question really. And so walk is what I did. The only silver lining to this event was that it meant I was able to witness the full glory of Jan Frodeno sailing past like a rocket on the bike, an experience that whilst awe-inspiring did drive home just how far I still had to go myself, especially as it was Jan’s second loop and just the start of my first!
A couple of clicks down the road, and by now easily able to tell spectators in German that I had a flat, for the second time, and no spares – “Ich habe einen platten! Es ist das zweite und ich habe keine mehr Schläuche!” – the bike support quad roared up, enquired what the issue was and then disappointingly said they didn’t have the right wheel, before tearing off again. All I could do then was keep walking. The next team to catch me were the athlete minibuses. “Was I out?” was the question. “Not if I can help it,” was my quick answer. I must admit that I had to consider the option of throwing in the towel when they told me that it could be up to four hours before I either got to the bike station or was met by one of the teams(?!). Something told me that it was still worth continuing and so I simply quipped that it was a nice day for a walk and if anything a great way to see some of the countryside before continuing my stroll.
My faith was relatively quickly repaid as I entered yet another village and was greeted by a concerned spectator who told me he was a fellow triathlete and had a spare! Hooray! Feeling like Lewis Hamilton in the pits, him and his family set to getting my bike roadworthy again and I was, once again, back on the road! Legends, absolute legends! You tell me where else in the world and at what other race one would find that kind of spectator support, and in the arse end of nowhere to boot?! Acutely mindful of the time deficit I had suffered so far I felt compelled to put my head down and really put in some serious effort, overtaking a number of others in the process, which went some way to making me feel a little better about the trajectory on which my day seemed to have been placed. I realised that given the considerable delay my target goals for the race were going to have to shift and evolve. No longer was I a contender for a sub-11 hour finish and so having made peace with that fact I resolved to aim for a 12 hour finish, or thereabouts. The temptation to overpush it on the rest of the bike leg was one I had to actively suppress, especially given that my heart rate monitor had failed to work from the moment I switched it on and, not training or racing with a power meter, all I had left was to race paying attention to perceived effort.
Spotting a small bike station at the top of the next hill, I stopped to request a spare, paranoid as I was now that my rear tyre and I did not have the same level of commitment to this race and so wishing to hedge my bets by having a spare on me. Although, lets be honest: one flat is just unfortunate, two annoying and extremely unlikely. Three? Well, that would have surely been unheard of and a sign, if it had happened, that something was fundamentally wrong with my wheel?! So, I started back out feeling a little safer but still paranoid given what had gone down so far.
Challenge Roth_cycling 2016
The bike leg of Challenge Roth sees athletes complete two loops, before a short final section takes them back into Roth and onto the run. The loop is, it would surely be agreed by all, breathtakingly beautiful as we got to cycle through some of the most classically attractive European countryside there is. Rolling green hills, fields of varying crops, dense deciduous forest, cute villages and towns with architecture and a sense of history of another era, all underpinned by some of the best, most smoothly and well-maintained roads I have ever cycled on. The support from locals, who were to be found at even the most out-of-the-way locations in addition to being out in force in the main villages and dedicated ‘hot spots’, was electric and it was impossible not to feel the surge in motivation, effort and energy that arrived with being met by the wall of loud, enthusiastic support that greeted us at regular intervals. One such example of the unique and enthusiastic support on this race was the old guy who was dressed in full clown outfit and who stood on the side of the road in a part of the course that was extremely rural. Not only did I see him on my first loop but he was still there on the second, continuing to wave and applaud as we all trundled by.
The first of the really meaty climbs was also such a spot and the fact that so many people were on hand to cheer us all up the gradient made it so much easier to bear. Talking of climbs, the legendary Solar Hill was everything that I had heard it was: spine tingling and I was simply unable to suppress the childish grin that spread automatically across my face as I powered my bike up the steep climb, with hoardes of supporters screaming support, waving flags and rattling clangers all the way to the top. Incredible! Once up Solar Hill you know that you’re close to the end of the loop, and so I knew that I was a little under 50% of the way through the bike leg. So far so good as far as inflated tyres as well! Although this was not for long as I got to, no word of a lie, virtually the SAME point that I happened to puncture the second time. I’m pretty certain I both laughed, cried a little and definitely painted the air blue at what was now officially my third flat of the day. The novelty and “fun” factor of having a flatty during a race had most certainly worn off by this stage and all I could think was “No! I have come too damned far to quit now! I WILL finish this race!” But, I thought, it is ok because I had the presence of mind to pick up a spare tube on the first loop. How clever I am! So, tube was removed and, thankfully, I first checked that the new CO2 canisters that I had previously purchased actually fitted my adaptor – why oh why I had not thought to do the same back when I purchased them at the Expo and before I had started the race is beyond me but hey ho – and would you believe it, they did NOT fit! Aaaaaarrrrgghhh!!!! So back to walking it was, this time nearly as far as the little station where I had picked up the spare in the first place, with the last few metres assisted by some filler foam that one of the guys from the station had cycled down the road to meet me with. Convinced, and super paranoid, by now that there was clearly an issue with my back wheel I felt little confidence as I headed back out on the road and simply spent the next 75km praying to the bike Gods to be kind to me. All I now wanted was to get to the run because as long as I had at least 4-4.5 hours (the extra was mentally allowed on account of the fact that I was expecting to be broken by the time I reached it) then I could still make the 15 hour cut off and beat this thing! I did still find some pleasure in the stunning scenery, exhilarating downhills and the, by now lessened but no less heartening, support on the course. What gave me real pleasure, however, was finally seeing the turn off towards Roth at which point I did punch the air, and then the piece de resistance: T2!
Cycling_Challenge Roth_support
Incredible crowd support at all stages is what makes Challenge Roth so unique & memorable.

T2

The sight of the banners stretched across the road and that signaled the entrance to transition and the end of my seven and a half hours out on the bike course came like a beautiful vision and I actually found myself thanking the universe as I rounded the corner, un-clipped my pedals and shakily dismounted. I had made it! Handing my bike off to the volunteer I vaguely recall telling them, in all seriousness, that they could keep it as I tottered round to the changing tent now acutely aware of some serious chafing and the good sense in putting spare 3B cream into my transition bag – seriously, that stuff is a lifesaver! Again, the volunteers were so incredible and before I knew what was happening I had been generously covered in sunscreen and was off out onto the run course, with the sun now very much in attendance.

Run

I’d love to say that I enjoyed the entire run but that would be a massive lie as the first 10km at the least were pretty wretched, and Monique will testify to how much that showed on my face when we passed each other at the 4km marker – my 4km I hasten to add; she was significantly further along by that stage. The run was a fairly simple course, heading out of Roth and out onto the path running alongside the Main-Donau Canal, the same one we had swum in further upstream, with the vast majority of the running literally being a straight line up and down said path. I was grateful for the presence of aid stations about every 3km and soon settled into my plan of ‘run 3km at 10km pace followed by a 1.5min walk through the station.’ It is safe to say that my pace between the stations early on was certainly not my usual 10km pace and the walks may have been a little longer than 90 seconds, but the cold water sponges, water and coke were all absolutely welcome, with the sponges especially helpful as I refreshed them at pretty much every station due to it actually being really quite a hot day by then. I did, however, soon remember the hidden dangers of over hydrating and thinking that I could cool myself by drinking, when in actual fact this was only going to hinder my run. I was glad that I had the presence of mind to do so as my tactics changed and I started to find my legs. Hitting the 11km mark in the first hour made me realise that I could aim for a four hour marathon and salvage something good from the race. This represented a turning point for me.
Run_Challenge Roth 2016Without a working HRM I just had to trust in my pacing and rate of perceived effort to guide my running. This worked pretty well and my second 11km felt significantly smoother, so much so that I even felt able to share a little joke with one beer drinking spectator that a beer right at that moment would have been awesome! So there they were: my running legs! They were back with me and with them a new sense of confidence. As I passed the 26km mark, heading down the second leg of the canal, I actually felt amazing and quickened the pace a little, enjoying the thrill of sailing past runner after runner, only stopping very briefly at every other aid station and primarily doing so to simply swap out the cold water sponges that had fast become essential to my comfort. The final section through the woods and looping back over the canal before switching back on ourselves was tough, with a long, steady uphill to contend with and tired legs whispering to walk “just a little.” Seeing other runners getting a massage at the 30km mark only made this whispering louder and so it was just a matter of gritting my teeth and pounding on, all the while thinking of the end game and that line.
Challenge Roth_run finish is close
The end is sooooo close!

As I hit the 32km mark I made a decision that I was absolutely going to run in under 4 hours and so planned to quicken the pace over the penultimate 5km, increasing it to shy of a sprint for the final 5km. Amazingly I did just that, although must confess that I came so incredibly close to a walk at the 38km mark that it was almost a different story. Stubbornness, however, won out and as I re-entered the town, running down into the historic centre and the scenes that I recognised from the previous year’s You Tube footage I knew that I had barely 2km to go. “Head down, eyes straight, keep a good form and breathe.” I was going to do it if I kept up this pace. Run, run, run. The park was close. Run, run, run. And then the carpet appeared and the track narrowed, spectators lining the edges. Thankfully I had some time in the bank as I was unable to pass a few runners who had slowed to greet family members, although thankfully they did eventually step aside and I was able to crank up the pace into the main stadium but only after passing my father who, as with my Ironman in Tahoe, I barely recognised in my race-weary state as he shouted out and I caught a fleeting glimpse over my shoulder. Now was not the time to stop!

Roth 2016_Run finish
I thought I was smiling but after 13 hours seem more to be grimacing. A finish is, however, a finish & the BEST feeling!

The stadium was an experience and a half and in hindsight I wish I had given my parents my 360-degree camera to hand to me before I entered it as recording those final few steps in full immersive glory would have been amazing. As I turned the final corner I heard the announcer mention my name and the welcome into the Challenge Family before there it was: the finish line! I had never been so happy to see a finish line than at that very moment and I hope the pictures do that sense justice. I felt I had beaten the odds and clawed back the race for myself when it looked as though it was doomed to be a disappointment. Why do we do this to ourselves? What is it that compels us to put ourselves through this kind of arduous trial in the name of leisure? I honestly don’t know. What I do know is that on the day, when its all on the line, we are capable of digging into parts of ourselves that we didn’t even realise were there and are able to scoop up just that little bit more grit, determination, will to make it to the end and with our heads held high. That was what Challenge Roth was for me. It was supposed to be a bit more of a leisurely race after the challenges of racing in Lake Tahoe, and I was fully expecting to come in with a significantly faster time as befitted the terrain and course. What I got instead was what was printed on the race number: a challenge, and I feel, weirdly, that I am now the better for it.

Finisher medal_Challenge Roth 2016
BOOM!
One thing that my Lake Tahoe experience and Roth had in common was the fact that I felt utterly unable to eat much at all after the race, forcing down a couple of yogurts and a welcome glass of Erdinger alcohol-free Weissbier, which tasted like liquid heaven! The post-race amenities, services and food were pretty impressive and I just wish that I felt more able to take advantage of them. There were multiple massage tables, showers for athletes and a very eclectic and generous spread of food on offer for hungry athletes to tuck into, with everything from pasta to baguettes and beyond. I did not linger too long in this area however as my parents were outside waiting for me. Having zero real idea of where geographically the run-in actually was and not wishing to get lost in the crowds looking for them I headed to our previously agreed meeting spot at the entrance to the site. As the light started to fade it soon dawned on me that perhaps mum and dad had not recalled the plan and so I set out to search for them, thankfully bumping straight into mum and avoiding a frustrating search of the entire site. As such, the delay and the failing light did mean that post-race photos were not going to work and so we headed off to collect my bike before trekking through a long, very very dark and winding road that snaked through woods to find our car, seeing the final fireworks light up the sky as we reached it. A fitting end to a very very long day, both for me and my folks, who had been in Roth itself since 4am and can now confirm that nothing really starts happening in the town until about lunchtime.
Our hosts confirmed their utter awesomeness by being on hand to greet both me, my family, and the other family, who we met up with again in Munich the following week. Enjoying a well earned beer and recounting the events of the day with friends and family was the perfect way to round out an amazing Challenge Roth experience, and it was so heartening to know that everyone in this part of the world truly does get behind and excited about the triathlon, with our hosts even producing a detailed printout of both Dirk’s and my race statistics! Dirk was racing his first ever triathlon and had a great day, suggesting that he might well be back again in the near future. Once is truly never enough when it comes to long distance racing!

Final Thoughts

There are so many reasons why Challenge Roth is consistently voted as the best triathlon by athletes and to list them all would be an entire article in itself. For me the main attractions and experiences were:
  •  The enthusiasm of athletes who have raced it before – I am yet to meet a single triathlete who has raced Roth and not loved it. No other triathlon really sees people get that effusive as with Roth, with most recounting the genuine goosebumps that result during the ascent of Solar Hill. The description of this part of the bike course as being akin to a “religious experience” was what spurred me into action in applying for the race and I can confirm that it is every bit as magical as reported. No other race, as far as I am aware, has such a fervour of enthusiasm and support as Challenge Roth and this alone makes it a must-do event for anyone intending to race at iron distance.

 

  • The stadium finish – no finish line that I have ever crossed has yet matched the overwhelming feeling of scale and celebration that Challenge Roth engenders. To experience tiers of wild cheering and enthusiastic applause from all sides in the final meters of a race is a feeling that is almost indescribable. As mentioned before I absolutely wish I had been able to record the experience in 360-degrees so that I could go some way to sharing it with others – it made the thirteen hours of grueling activity all worthwhile.

 

  • Roth and the surrounding area – in fact the entirety of Bavaria makes entering Challenge Roth a must-do as it is stunningly beautiful. Historical, charming, picture postcard, timeless, cultured, rolling – some of the words to describe this unique part of the world. We were fortunate enough to stay on in Bavaria for a further week of rest and recuperation after the race and loved every second of it. In fact, I would gladly move over to Munich in a heartbeat if given the chance such was the charm of the city!

 

  • The people – I was blown away by how genuinely hospitable, friendly, helpful and enthusiastic everyone we met in Bavaria was. If it were not for the genuine warmth, concern and enthusiasm of public supporters on the bike course my race would have ended painfully early on – I would argue that there is not a single other race in the world where you will experience that level of crowd support over every stage. It completely reaffirms your faith in humanity and helped spur me on to do what might have previously seemed unthinkable. We made genuine friends for life in the process and I feel a special sense of affection now for Germany and in particular Bavaria.
Special thanks to everyone who supported me pre, during and post race, especially my coach, Trace Rogers, my parents/ chief cheerleaders, and the entire Dubai and wider triathlon community, of which I am proud to be a part of.
Challenge HQ_Roth
The home of Challenge is literally Roth
RACE DETAILS:
TOTAL TIME = 12’55”51
SWIM = 1’11”39
T1 = 9”00
BIKE = 7’41”28
T2 = 3”57
RUN = 3’48”40

Challenge. In Every Sense of the Word

Challenge Dubai finish
The ultimate target on race day

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
Challenge Dubai pre-race swim
Early morning pre-race swim before Challenge Dubai

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.

Windy Start
Race morning: windyI 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!
Relentless
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.
Challenge Dubai medalsNow 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?!
Monique and Chris_finishers Challenge DubaiThe 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.
Challenge Dubai 2015 winners
Pro winners. Men: Terenzo Bozzone (1st); Tim Reed (2nd); Michael Raelert (3rd). Women: Daniela Ryf (1st); Heather Wurtele (2nd); Helle Frederikson (3rd).

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.

Male pro winners, Challenge Dubai
In the presence of greatness! Post awards pic with Terenzo Bozzone (1st) & Tim Reed (2nd). Legends!

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…

FINAL RACE RESULTS
M30-34
Overall place = 241/637 (top 40%)
Gender place = 206/523 (top 40%)
Category Place = 28/84 (top 33%)
Swim = 00:39:22
(T1 = 00:03:10)
Bike = 03:01:56
(T2 = 00:02:32)
Run = 01:50:12
TOTAL = 05:37:12

Wadi Bih – Run with a View

The Wadi Bih race is officially the longest running expat sporting event held in the UAE, started as it was in 1992, and sees runners take on the trails through Wadi Bih, nestled in the top right corner of the peninsula and requiring a crossover into Oman.
I had heard much of the beauty of the views afforded competitors during this race and in spite of also hearing tales of caution relating to extremely lengthy waits at the border crossing, I felt compelled to get involved myself this year. This was the first year that the event was to be staged over two days, with the addition of a few new races, including the solo 50 and 30 kilometre events. Given that the team 72 kilometre relay – the main event of the weekend – was due to be held on Saturday, I was not in a position to put a team together or join another, although finding a last minute fill-in spot would not have been difficult, and so signed up for the solo 30 race. Why did I not go longer? I have the big race of the current season coming up at the end of February – Challenge Dubai – and so as much as I wanted to take part this weekend I certainly didn’t wish to sacrifice good quality training over the next crucial few weeks on account of having broken myself at the longer distances. Plus, to be honest, I have never run further than 36km and am not very experienced at trail running. As such, I know that although I’m sure I could have completed the longer races it would not have been the experience that I would have liked. Ultimately sport has to be fun – after all, I am not a professional and do this for leisure not a living. The price paid for signing on to the shorter distance was that I did not get to fully experience and appreciate the epic views that I know longer competitors did. Oh well…. theres always next year or a separate trip altogether.
tent, Wadi Bih, Oman
Perfect abode for the weekend

With a tent kindly loaned to me by friend and colleague Adri and her husband Emile, and a relatively lightly (by my usual ‘hopeless packer’ standards) packed car, I made the most of having Thursday off and set off for the east coast early, determined to miss the queues at the border. A pleasant journey via Masafi – one of my favourite drives so far in the UAE – with a quick stop off at Lulu for some last minute food items and a spur of the moment camp chair purchase (I soon discovered at the beach that I had in fact purchased a child-size chair!) I pressed on to collect my border papers, only spotting the direction sign by fluke and at the very last minute, before waiting no more than ten minutes whilst my papers were verified and the car searched for alcohol – none was found incidentally.

The Golden Tulip hotel, nestled at the northern end of the large Dibba bay, was our base for the weekend and I set about swiftly commandeering a prime pitch for my little tent and even smaller chair, sheltered by the beach wall, looking back at the hotel and race finish chute, and situated picturesquely beneath a classic palm tree, making the whole scene look like one straight out of Robinson Crusoe. The first significant difference between beach camping and traditional UK camping that I had formerly experienced as a Boy Scout was the fact that pegs are pretty much useless in sand! A solution, thankfully, was on hand as I spotted several large rocks close to my pitch and with the two larger ones placed inside the tent itself at opposite ends, and then the guy ropes secured with the help of two more sizeable slabs, my tent was up and the scene set.
Saloman, Wadi Bih, race finish
Finish line of Wadi Bih race

The evening before my race was a fairly relaxed affair, as it should have been, and after a brief exploration of the hotel – it didn’t take long on account of actually being pretty small – I made friends with a group of team 50 relay runners from Doha, Qatar (the ‘Not so dashing expats’) and joined them for a couple of beers. One of them, it was soon pointed out, bore an uncannily striking resemblance to a certain President of Russia, which provided some mirth. Fellow Dubai athlete, Chops Potter, and friend Marcus Smith, who is currently preparing for the epic Marathon des Sables in April, arrived later in the evening and I joined them at their camp for a quiet nightcap before everyone retired for an early start in the morning. The solo 72’ers were all due to set off at the early hour of 0430 and I did poke my head out of the tent to see them off before catching another hour of much needed sleep. My race wasn’t due to start until 0900, although I would have much preferred to start earlier in order to miss the real heat of the day. Still, at least I wasn’t having to run 72km!

Dubai, triathletes, Wadi Bih
Fellow Dubai triathletes, Taka and Tyrone, and I at the start of the 30km race

Even more members of the Dubai scene arrived, with Doris taking part in the 50km solo and Taka and Tyrone joining me on the 30km race. When they both suggested that I should be aiming for a podium place I dismissed their vociferations as fanciful niceties, especially given that I am not a seasoned trail runner and was sure that the field for our race was playing host to many very fast runners. With that in mind, and a plan to just enjoy myself, I set off finding myself leading the charge and quickly remembering to focus on keeping my heart rate at a sensible and sustainable level, especially with the fact that it was to be a long race. Within about 2km the eventual race winner, Doha-based athlete Stephen Gurr, passed and was soon very much in the distance, with a couple of other runners catching me and so it was that we stayed together for about the first 5km. The funny thing about races is that regardless of what your intentions or objectives for the event, a race is still a race and we are all naturally competitive people. As such, it wasn’t long before you could feel the pace quickening and the temptation to match the renewed speed, knowing full well that to do so may well result in problems later down the line. I therefore made a decision to stick to my plan, keeping my heart rate below 180bpm and essentially allowing the two guys with me to charge ahead. My thoughts were that they were either significantly fitter than me, in which case bravo and good race, or they were making a strategic error and I would be passing them later in the race. It seems I chose wisely as it wasn’t long before I duly passed both runners. Who’d have thunk it – plans do usually work!

There were a few hilly sections on the 30km race, which did really test the lungs, legs and technique. I personally find it much easier to go up hills by pretending that I am holding poles and using my arms in such a fashion as if I am using said fictional poles. The turnaround at 15km coincided with the second aid station and following a swift downing of some electrolytes and a dousing with cold water, I set off towards the hotel and finish, in hot pursuit of the two runners between me and a second place slot. As seems to be the story of my racing career to date, the turn towards home saw me suddenly tap into an additional energy reserve and I felt great as I locked onto my targets, quickly closing the gap and moving into third. The runner now in second had put a reasonable distance between us and the next 3km saw that gap gradually close as I quickened my pace and he slowed his. Eventually I caught him and found myself in the position of having to defend my hard fought second position – my first podium slot – which is basically where the race really started for me.
Not wishing to upset the rhythm that I had established, I chose not to look behind me until the last large hill, when I found a need to walk briefly, expecting my closest rival to pass me. He didn’t and so I glanced back to see that I had actually put a decent gap between us. That gave me the encouragement to dig in, push up the hill and focus on keeping my lead for the closing kilometres of the race, knowing full well that a race is not won until the line is crossed. This is where mental reserves were called on as by this stage the temperature had peaked and I was feeling the heat. I don’t believe I broke any records over those final kilometres, slow as they were, although the pace acutely increased as I turned onto the main road near the hotel, and the 2km left mark, to glance back and see the runner who would eventually take third rapidly catching me up. “Nooooo!” was all I could think. “I have NOT battled this far to let it slip now!” As such, I dug in and was determined to push it as hard as I could right until the end. The first problem I hit upon was the fact that the signposting back to the race start was awful, or rather non-existent, which was an issue given that I could not for the life of me recall which side-street we had emerged from. A pitiful look back to Mr Third Place with a shrugged question of “Which way?” was met, very sportingly I might add, with instructions to keep going and then directions on where to actually turn. If he was set on taking second over me at any cost then he could have stitched me right up and sent me the wrong way easily. But he didn’t. Cos he is a sportsman, and I genuinely applaud and respect him for that fact. So, the final straight entered, the hotel in sight, tantalisingly close yet still far enough to hurt. I was absolutely convinced that it would be in these final hundreds of metres that I would be passed and so I gritted my teeth and just locked on to the finish. Still in second as I reached the sand. Still in second at the start of the finish chute. “Yes!” Second place as I crossed the line and brought this race to a close. I’d done it! I had secured my first UAE podium. It felt great. Well, it actually felt like my legs were about to seize up but the feeling of achievement was wonderful.
View from tent, Wadi Bih
View of finish line at Wadi Bih race from my siesta point

Heeding the advice of coach, Trace, I duly hopped – or rather collapsed into – the cool waters of the hotel pool, determined to loosen the legs up, before donning the trusty compression tights and gobbling down some protein and cool drinks. The short siesta I took in my tent – complete with prime views out of the open door to the finish – was serene, and as I dozed I allowed my thoughts to wander back over the race. I’d intended to listen to music, even wearing my ear buds the whole way round. However, as it turned out I actually ran without any music, and so was able to really listen to my body, and focus on my race strategy, which I suspect helped a great deal.

new shoes, race prize, Wadi BihMy initial plan has been to pack up and head back to Dubai after the race. However, given the fact that a) I knew the traffic was going to be hellish on a Friday afternoon, and b) it was a great chance to kick back with some friends and enjoy the post-race hospitality, I opted to hang around for the rest of the day, joining in with a few well-deserved beers and making a decent dent in the race buffet on offer. After a demonstration of several Omani songs and dances from a local group we got on to the presentation and I soon found myself shaking hands with the local dignitaries and race organiser, John Young, before accepting my prize for second: a new pair of Saloman running shoes, which were exactly in my size as well. A great result from a really great day’s event. I would certainly recommend it to anyone looking for a fun trail running race and I would definitely like to return to take part in the full distance, albeit as part of a relay, perhaps even taking up the option of doing it in fancy dress!
FINAL RACE TIME = 2 hrs 33 mins

Race to Bahrain

What a season we are having! Hot off the back of a fantastic Dubai International Triathlon, and serving as a great run-in to the other big race of the year, Challenge Bahrain, the aptly titled Race to Bahrain triathlon took place on Friday 21st November at Mamzar Beach Park, site of so many fun events before.

I had once again signed up for the Olympic Distance, with the difference this time being that we had the option of donning a wetsuit for the swim, given the fact that we are definitely into winter now and the water verging on chilly. When given the option of wearing a wetsuit or not for a race it is generally accepted that the consensus is to do so as in theory they do result in a faster swim owing to the increased buoyancy.

SuperTri were yet again out in force, with this race seeing coach Trace and Barbara, of TriPod fame, teaming up for the Sprint Relay, ultimately taking the crown in impressive style. Several of Trace’s athletes were out racing as well, across the Sprint and Olympic distances, all having a really good day.

With an evidently smaller field this time around, the mass deep water swim start had a little more of a relaxed feel to it and I was pleased with my acceleration and sighting, lining up the first buoy and keeping a fairly straight course as I reached and turned round it. I think in hindsight that my rhythm may have suffered overall as I sighted a lot more during this race, inevitably leading to some degree of slowing in the process. Still, I imagine that what I lost in pace I probably made up in terms of reduced overall distance swum on account of not tacking on an extra couple of hundred metres of zig-zagging! With the swim ticked off in little over 30 minutes, I had an initial moment of fumbled reacquaintance with my wetsuit as I exited the water, doing my best to locate and pull down the zip cord, looking I am sure more Mr Bean than Macca in the process. Still, a relatively fast (for me) T1 ensured that I was out on the bike swiftly. Choosing to limit my fluid reserves to one front-mounted reservoir, I was carrying slightly less weight on this race, and gauged the fluid requirements well as it turned out, with a small amount of drink still present by the end of the ride, in contrast to the entire extra bottle of water I was carrying last time – a total waste of energy. Yet again, I stuck to the plan prescribed by Trace, and limited my heart race to an average of about 165 bpm for the full 40km, seeing it rise a little on the sections where we found ourselves heading straight into a headwind. As a result of the smaller field, or maybe because I am actually getting faster after all, I was aware of fewer people passing me on the bike, cruising into T2 feeling pretty good.

The run, as I have said many times before, is definitely my discipline and so it was as I flew out of T2 at a pace of 3:50, eventually settling out to an average pace of 4 minutes per kilometre. An early decision to jettison some of the water taken on during the bike at an early loo stop proved to be a sensible strategic move, with the pace picking up and feeling even more comfortable immediately afterwards. I am not sure what my 2-lap splits were but I feel confident that I posted a negative split for the run. One thing I know is that I had very little left in the tank by the end and was pleased to see the finish line looming up, digging deep to find some last minute turbo pace down the finish chute. Boom! Another race done and another handsome bit of metal in the treasure chest 🙂 A great race overall and if only I can work more on my bike times and fitness then maybe I can hope to see myself start to creep up the placings, finishing 8th as I did in my category for this particular race. Things can only get better hey?!

FINAL RACE RESULTS:
Swim 1.5km (incl T1) = 0:30’43
Cycle 40km (incl T2) = 1:13’20
Run 10km = 0:41’35

TOTAL TIME = 2:25’39

Dubai International Triathlon 2014 – Photos

A few shots from Dubai International Triathlon 2014

Dubai International Triathlon 2014

Triathlon Just Got Bigger!

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.
transition, triathlon
Atlantis glimmers in the background, as transition awaits the athletes the night before DIT

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.

Team SuperTri at DITPersonally 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 🙂
DIT SwimSwim
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.
Focusing in on buoy 1 at the swim start
Focusing in on buoy 1 at the swim start

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.

Sprinting out of T1Cycle
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.
Bike course_DIT_IronVetOnce 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.
IronVet bikeFriday 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.
Having fun on the run
Having fun on the run

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!
Finishing is ALWAYS awesome
Finishing is ALWAYS awesome

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.

Rafat and I celebrate with our medals
Rafat and I celebrate with our medals

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.

FINAL RACE RESULTS:

Swim 1.9km (incl T1) = 0:38’28

Cycle 90km (incl T2) = 2:56’12

Run 21km = 1:45’01

TOTAL TIME = 5:19’43

Mamzar Olympic Triathlon – October 2014

Following the plan set out by Super Tri's Trace Rogers paid off
Following the plan set out by Super Tri’s Trace Rogers paid off

With an entry thankfully secured for the Olympic Distance race and a brand new TT bike to really test out, I loaded up the car early on Friday morning, having enjoyed a few beers with a new friend the evening before and less than the desired amount of sleep (as always before a race), and made my way to Mamzar Beach. The last time I raced at Mamzar was earlier in the year when I still had my nice shiny new 4WD, which was then totalled by an idiot driver jumping a red en-route back towards home and thoughts of a well earned breakfast. It was with some sense of exorcising those demons that I returned this time, albeit via a slightly different route, avoiding the main highway and, the logic dictated, the speedier idiots.

Its amazing how much kit is actually needed for a tri
Its amazing how much kit is actually needed for a tri

Mamzar now feels familiar, having raced there twice before, although each race still carries new challenges and requires the utmost level of planning and focus as ever. The usual pre-race routine of setting up transition, mentally rehearsing both T1 and T2, and running through the race plan was adhered to. The differences this time were that a) I was feeling much stronger, off the back of an entire year of Ironman training, and also had my very own TT bike, and thus felt very much more like a “real” triathlete, not that having a TT bike really makes any significant difference. Racking up yet again next to Christian Henn, a powerhouse of triathlon and an athlete whom I admire greatly and can only aspire to match in terms of both training and racing success, conjured up feelings of deja vu, as I’m pretty sure we were racked next to each other last time as well. I guess we both like to sign up to races at similar times! Not that our race times were ever going to be the same. As expected, Christian stormed through the race, finishing, as I understand it, in a hugely impressive time of a smidge over 2 hours versus by 2hrs 25mins. Unstoppable! Anyway, I digress.

My new steed had a good first race
My new steed had a good first race

With the new mean machine (Focus Chrono) settled in ready for the bike portion, and my new Sailfish Speedsuit donned in anticipation of the non-wetsuit swim, with the aim very much being to NOT go anywhere near the sharp rope and cut said pricey new addition to my sporting wardrobe, it was time to get in the zone, limber up and make my way down to the shoreline ready for the swim start. One of the great things about the triathlon scene here in Dubai is the real sense of community that there is, and it is always fun catching up with friends as we all wait anxiously but excitedly, counting down the minutes until we get to enter the water, swim out beyond the rope and tread water before the deep water swim start. I have a pretty good acceleration in the water and so intentionally positioned myself as near the front of the pack as I could, choosing, however, to stay to the right of the main huddle, meaning that I would have a slightly longer swim line to the first buoy but, I reasoned, it should be less crowded and thus a smoother and faster swim.

With the starting horn sounded, a mass of arms, legs and spray erupted as we powered our way through the water towards the first turn, occasionally catching our breath as we spotted the odd large jellyfish bobbing just below the surface, reminding us that we were very much in their marine domain. I had a pretty good swim all told, even though I a) still have some work to do on sighting, swimming a slightly more zig-zag course than would have been ideal, and b) had the distinct sensation of the water being almost effervescent, feeling a tingling sensation which I put down to possible small stings from possibly macerated jellyfish parts that may have been floating about in the water. I later learned that the source of the strange sensation was in fact small jellyfish larvae, which get trapped between our tri suits and skin, administering continuous tiny stings, giving what I experienced as a tingling sensation. Apparently Mamzar is a big breeding ground for jellyfish, and so everyone experienced the same strange sensation, which we all initially put down to sea lice.

With the two lap swim complete, followed by a reasonably rapid T1, it was out on the bike for the five laps, my aim being to follow the plan advised by Trace, my coach, of racing at 95% of my functional power threshold for the bike leg. Not having my power meter attached to my new bike did mean that I had to rely on heart rate as my guide to power, and so my intention was to maintain it at about 163 beats per minute. That did end up feeling painfully slow, with loads of people ending up sailing past me over the course of the 40km. Still, as tempting as it was to put pedal to the metal and race them all, I knew that the thing to do was trust the plan and stick with it.

Feeling good on the 10km run
Feeling good on the 10km run

As it transpired, that was exactly the right thing to do as I entered T2, donned my running shoes and immediately felt strong as I started the 10km run. From the minute I left transition I hit a steady pace of 4:15 and maintained it as my average pace for the duration of the two lap run, relishing the sensation of picking off fellow runner after fellow runner, all of whom had passed me at one point or another on the bike. In fact, I think that the net result over the 10km was that I was not actually overtaken and sill managed to finish pretty strong. Not that there was anything left in the tank mind you, as I slowed to savour the finish, something that I have recently started to do after previously tearing through the finish as if my pants were on fire and missing out on the very real sense of elation that comes from crossing that line. It also means that the photographers actually get a better chance to snap a half decent shot of you over the line, as opposed to some out-of-focus, blurry mess of a grimmacing idiot that I used to see as my usual finish line photo.

Savouring the finish line
Savouring the finish line

With the much appreciated post-race chocolate milk provided by the generous SuperTri crew procured and hastily imbibed, it was time to shoot the post-race breeze with my fellow UAE triathletes before collecting up the new steed, finding a quiet spot on the beach to shower and ‘re-humanise’ before returning home for a well-earned breakfast and rest. Another great race in an altogether incredible city for triathlon. Bring on the Dubai International Triathlon!

FINAL RACE RESULTS:

Swim 1.5km (incl T1) = 0:29’55

Cycle 40km (incl T2) = 1:12’54

Run 10km = 0:43’07

TOTAL = 2:25’57

Red Hot with Red Bull

Red Hot with Red Bull

Sultan of the Desert Proves Itself a Worthy Title

The start of the run stage, which kicked off the day's racing
The start of the run stage, which kicked off the day’s racing

There are times in one’s life when someone suggests doing something and you find yourself enthusiastically going along with it, only to later question the original sanity of the decision. That was what I found myself doing more than once on Friday 10th October 2014 as I found myself staring up the impossibly steep, rocky face up which I was to carry my mountain bike and, even by that stage, fatigued body and mind. This, ladies and gentleman, was the Red Bull Sultan of the Desert Adventure Race: a three discipline race – trail run, mountain bike, and kayak – that athletes could either complete legs of as part of a team or, like the small band of insane people of which I was a member, race the entire course.

Mountain biking, Red Bull, Sultan of the DesertThe race started, for me at least, a few days earlier as I tapped up friends for the loan of a decent mountain bike, given the fact that I had entered a race that required one and yet had last been on one a year ago in Europe. Bike duly lent (thank you Rachael 🙂 ) I trekked over to Al Ain, where a friend and colleague of mine was kind enough to host me at her and her husband’s place a short distance from the race venue, Wadi Adventure. Pre-race preparations included an awesome braii, continuing my South African vibe from the previous weekend, and firming up last minute team members for a couple of teams suddenly without key members. I felt a bit like a sports agent 🙂
Naomi & I about to start the run stage
Naomi & I about to start the run stage

As with every race I have done to date, the day started incredibly early and we arrived at Wadi Adventure to register as the sun was still very much starting its ascent. Following one bib number change and then another on the day itself, I found myself racing as number 136, got my bike racked, Camel-Pak suitably loaded up with water and nutrition, and waited with the rest of the posse for both the race briefing and then buses out to the start of the first stage of the day: the 15km trail run back into Wadi Adventure.

In hindsight it would have been much better to have had the run kicking off significantly earlier, even right at the crack of dawn, as by the time the starting horn went, following a valiant effort by MC Very Enthusiastic to whip us up into a 300-esque frenzy, the sun was already beating down on us, meaning that even from the start I found my heart-rate shooting up to about 180 and remaining there even as I was forced to slow down my pace. The initial few kilometres seemed to be very short but the going got significantly tougher as we reached our first serious ascent, with running up it simply not something that was going to happen. The key difference between the road and track running that I am used to with triathlon and trail is that there are a lot more opportunities to roll an ankle, slip or otherwise do yourself an injury. On the flip side, as long as you’re careful and don’t do anything too heroic or out of control then trail is far more interesting. Our run route took us through valleys and even through a couple of wadi drains, as we ducked under roads, before emerging the Wadi Adventure side of Jebel Hafeet, and the last few kilometres to base and the start of our bike leg. The placing of water stations at regular intervals was welcome, especially the provision of chilled water, much of which ended up being poured onto and over me as opposed to into me, such was the temperature.
My run time was, in hindsight, a relatively steady 1hr 32min, and would certainly have been faster had I not forced myself to walk sections of it in a bid to bring my heart rate down to a more sustainable level. As I came into Wadi Adventure I took a quick detour via my car in order to change running shoes (wrecking an expensive pair of Zoots on both the trail run and mountain bike seemed wasteful) and a pair of decent cycling shorts, my logic being that I would be sat on my backside for the foreseeable future on both the bike and then the kayak. If I was going to have to suffer then at least it wouldn’t be my arse that bore the brunt!
The course!
The course!

By the end of the run I was craving some sugar and, more pressing, salts, having stupidly forgotten to pack my electrolyte tablets for the one race where it seemed I was definitely going to be wanting them. Although it was a Red Bull sponsored event, offering athletes only Red Bull or water seemed a little silly. As much as I really didn’t need to be guzzling down the copious amounts of caffeine in the aforementioned beverage, my craving for additional sugar to fuel the next stage was greater and so a can was consumed before I was off on the bike, heading out along the initial straight. It might have been a straight, flat line but it was also predominantly thick sand – not the easiest to cycle in, thats for sure! Pushing the bike – a repeated exercise over the next 15km – was necessary for much of the first section, before the drinks station and just before entering the really technical stage of the ride. The MTB course had apparently been designed by a Red Bull sponsored downhill champion and it showed! Rocky, impossibly narrow on sections, with some serious drop offs and fast sections, and an area where we literally had to carry our bikes up a steep face. This relatively short section of more technical riding, which I believe was only about 4km, took most of us a considerable amount of time to navigate our way around and I certainly wasn’t the only person who felt a real attachment to their intact collar bones and thus walked a sizeable portion of the route. The final 8km of the course were flat, taking in the outskirts of the Wadi Adventure park and then taking us over the main road to the hotel and the kayak transition. I am not ashamed to say that I was pretty well cooked by the time I arrived and the sight of athletes further up the field carrying their kayaks back towards Wadi Adventure did little to rejuvenate my flagging energy levels.

A slight moment of the ‘whites’ once off the bike, followed swiftly by a hastily guzzled down Race Food bar, led me into the kayak for the three loops around the artificial lake, this being the first stage of the kayak event. Although I have had the privilege of doing a bit of paddling recently around the Palm, it was clear that my paddling technique still required some honing as I received helpful pointers from much faster fellow athletes, especially as on several occasions I found the kayak spinning to face the wrong way, a frustrating occurrence when all I now wanted was to see the finish line. Anyway, through a combination of stubborn determination, crap technique interspersed with moments of correct technique, and a strong desire to finish the race already, I ploughed on, exiting the water, I believe, in last place. A quick check of the rules to see if there was any reason why I could not place my kayak on my bike for the return to Wadi Adventure – I couldn’t sadly. Thankfully, a fellow individual competitor, Mark, was also at the same stage as me and so we teamed up, taking either end of the kayaks and walking the 2km (plus) back, flanked by the marshals who had stayed back to usher us stragglers in. 20 minutes later and we arrived at the white water course, eager to finish our short but fun rapids stage prior to the finish line, but were met with the rather annoying advice that as they had run out of time for the event (Jeez! Were we really THAT slow and behind everyone else?!) we would just have to drop the kayaks and run to the finish line. As much as I was glad to see the back of those kayaks and was eager to be done, I was also bitterly disappointed to not at least be able to finish ALL of the race. I couldn’t help myself as I asked the organiser, with an unavoidable hint of annoyance in my voice, why, if they were running out of time for us, did they feel it was ok to allow us to lug the kayaks all the way back when we could have been given a bit of a helping lift in order that we at least got to finish the race properly?! Obviously the kayak carrying was still part of the race but I’m sure most would agree that given the choice of which bit could feasibly be ‘cut out’ from the race in favour of doing the really fun bit (the white water), it would have been lugging 22kg kayaks the best part of 2km! Still, the fact remained: we were last, time was against us and so Mark and I ran to the finish, crossing together to close out the day’s efforts. Nearly 6 hours after starting it was over.
Finally finished
Finally finished

As fun as the race was in hindsight, and an epic achievement, especially given the fact that there were actually several DNFs, I would opt to run a half Ironman distance race any day! It was a tough, tough race and I am sure if I work on my specific discipline fitness (trail run, mountain bike and paddling), all of which I really haven’t done much of at all, then a return to the race next year (lol – see what I’m already doing?! Mentally signing up already! We are gluttons for punishment!) would, I am certain, see a much faster time. In the meantime, I plan to stick to triathlon 🙂

The race winners: teams & individuals
The race winners: teams & individuals

 

Last Minute Iron Success

Last Minute Iron Success

Iron Vet Returns to Roots to Race

Love can spur us on to great deeds. It can also lead to torment and self-lament, especially if it is threatened or snatched away. The decision as to what to do in such situations is telling and it was with such a backdrop that I made the very last minute decision to grab the long Eid weekend by the horns, book a flight and, taking the fact that my bike was still installed in its flight case after the Tahoe misadventure, sign up to a race. A half iron distance race to be precise.

I was actually born in South Africa so when my coach and friend, Trace, suggested joining her, Rachael and Phillipe in Durban off the back of a last minute Facebook enquiry regarding “stuff that might be happening in Dubai over Eid” it took less than a second to brand it an awesome idea. Here was a chance to visit the country of my birth for the first time since leaving when I was four. Impulsive? Yes. Expensive? Sure (the flights anyway). Well deserved and much needed? Abso-bloody-lutely! The race we had signed up for was the TriRock Durban triathlon, in its second year of running and a half-iron distance race, with a 1.9km sea swim, off the huge expansive beach in the city, followed by a 90km undulating cycle along the coastal road to the beautiful resort town of Ballito, returning to Durban where a three-lap half marathon, along the promenade and in view of the impressive Durban football stadium, stood between us and our race medals.

Flying direct to Durban, our path took us in an almost perfectly straight diagonal line from Dubai, flying over the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, out into the Indian Ocean and along the Eastern coast of the great continent of Africa itself. Landing in the evening we were greeted with a somewhat overcast, drizzly first impression of this surf hotspot, and once we had surprisingly managed to squeeze our two bike boxes plus bags into a VW Polo, it was time to break out the old school paper based navigation, supported by phone-issued instructions, in order to find our base for the weekend: Trace’s incredibly hospitable aunt and uncle. Living about 30minutes out of the main Durban city centre, up one of the many hills that apparently form the mighty Comrades Marathon route, their beautiful house was one of six in a small, gated community, complete with keypad entry and electric fencing running along the perimeter. Once inside it was easy to forget the very real security issues that South Africans deal with every day, and apart from the fact that doors and windows had the additional safety of bars, we could easily have been in an affluent Surrey suburb, especially when one looked out onto the garden, bursting with life and colour as it was. One of Trace’s friends kindly hosted me a few minutes down the road and it was a pleasure getting to know her family, with the level of generosity and kindness being shown to a stranger proving a common feature of the South Africans I had the honour of meeting over the weekend.

The base for TriRock Durban
The base for TriRock Durban

The first day in Durban was spent, as with any other race, just getting ourselves organised, registered and generally set up for race day, with our bikes needing to be rebuilt and racked the following day. The base from which Tri Rock Durban was operating was the Sun Coast casino, a funky, Art Deco-esque building right on the beachfront and within strolling distance of the impressive football stadium, complete with randomly multi-coloured seats, giving the impression of a full house whenever viewed by onlookers. The event had attracted a little over 1,000 athletes to the half distance race this year, a tripling in numbers according to the organiser, and with a bold, strong and unique look to the whole race, it was shaping up to be an exciting experience. The only issue that was threatening perfection in all things was the concern regarding the huge surf; the largest, we were told, in Durban for the last decade. And all on race weekend! Awesome. It’s almost as if the piss poor luck of Tahoe was stalking me! The talk was of cancelling the swim as it would simply have not been possible to get through the staggeringly huge waves that were pummelling the shoreline. Add to that the fact that due to the big swells and currents, the shark nets had been taken down and it was clear why the organisers were having a bit of an issue deciding what to ultimately do, with everyone praying to the weather gods to calm things down for Sunday. I did even offer, half-jokingly, to jump back on the plane, such has been the luck that I have attracted this past few weeks.

A bit of IronVet promo work :)
A bit of IronVet promo work 🙂

After some obligatory expo exploring and purchasing of stuff, including some pretty rad T-shirts, a new tri-suit and a pair of transitional Oakleys – prices were just so much lower than in Dubai that it would have been rude not to buy something – we all jumped in the car and headed out of Durban, north along the cycle route we would be taking on Sunday. The 45km stretch of coastal highway was undulating, green and with views out over the hills and stunning shore that songs have surely been sung about and masterpieces painted in honour of. Ballito, the turnaround point on the bikes, is an idyllic coastal resort town with a rocky, wild coast composed of wide arching bays separated by craggy, rocky projections of the South African mainland into the wild yet enchanting Indian Ocean.

View from BallitoOur lunchtime vista from the restaurant we found, and ate like kings at, was of thunderous surf and whales breaching in the distance. Any meal as good as the one we were served up, complete with the delicious locally brewed beer, needs a decent walk afterwards and so a leisurely 4km stroll out and back along the coast was had, giving us time to see the many cross sections of life that exist in this rainbow nation, from frolicking holidaymakers, testing their luck in the frenzied surf, to small traders selling their varied wares along the coastal path. Trace purchased a huge bag of even bigger avocados, as well as some beads, from an elderly woman, conversing and completing the transaction in Zulu, the indigenous language of the region. Incredible food was the theme extended into that evening, with one of the best steaks I think I have ever tasted being the pleasure. Simple food done well is an art and one that South Africans seem to have a natural flair for.

Swim Fears

Swim practice in Durban, South Africa
Swim practice in Durban, South Africa

I had always told myself that I would never swim in the waters off South Africa, such is the knowledge I have of what is swimming out there. I mean, of course, sharks! The fact that anyone you spoke with confirmed casually that yes, there were of course sharks in the waters off Durban, combined with talk of the shark nets did little to allay the pre-existing fears that I had of venturing out into even the shallows, let alone the depths. Still, there was a swim to be done (assuming it wasn’t called off) and we needed to practice, if anything to get some training in for how to overcome the surf through which we would need to emerge. Saturday morning was simply stunning, with the deep blue skies, azure sea and golden sands you’d come to expect of a surfing destination, and so it was with a true sense of being on an adventure that we trekked to the southern extent of Durban’s apparently endless beach where we found a group of like minded South Africans, all over from Johannesburg to race on Sunday. Heading out for a relatively relaxed and short loop with a larger, more experienced group, complete with welcome pointers for how best to handle the surf, did wonders for keeping any concerns I may have initially had safely at bay. In the end I thoroughly enjoyed the swim, body surfing in to shore and even going out for a second time with another group. Sure I allowed sharks to enter my thoughts whilst in the water but I simply did not permit them to linger. The truth is that shark attacks are so rare that they’re really not something to be overly hung up about and it was valuable to learn that then, the day before the race, rather than to still harbour potentially crippling anxieties on race morning itself.

Beachtime hanging outYet more good food – it always tastes better when sat on a beach, watching the various characters go by – with great company topped off the best start to the day, with final, last minute preparations being the main objective before racking up and the race brief later on. A spin around the block on the bikes back in the suburbs, before one final pack of the various transition bags and it was off to T1 we headed. It is amazing how we were able to fit so much, including two fully race-ready bikes, into the back of a little VW Polo, but between the Tardis-like capacity and reassuring power and speed of our little hire-car-supreme, I felt a renewed sense of awe at the engineering brilliance of the Germans!

Transition DurbanTransition was much like any other, with rows and rows of bike racks, growing fuller and thus increasing considerably in value, something that did cause me some anxiety given what the reports are of robbery, and crime in general, in South Africa and considering that all that effectively separated the general public of Durban from all our very pricey stuff was a single fence, with a small person-sized gap at the bottom. Still, those concerns were also quickly zapped as we turned up the following morning to find everything exactly as we had left it, although our transition bags were a little more ordered from the big piles that they started as the evening before. With bikes racked, bags deposited and the surf still giving it good guns we trekked off to the race brief, with the organisers confirming that we would, thankfully, be doing a full triathlon after all but that the swim route was to be changed slightly and shortened a little. This meant that instead of starting and finishing at the Bay of Plenty, where transition was situated and where the surf would give even Kelly Slater palpitations, we were to start about 2km further up the beach at uShaka Marine World, near the main pier and harbour entrance, where the surf was significantly tamer, swim out to a buoy, turn left and then swim the planned 1.4km parallel to the shore to the next buoy. At this point it was simply a case of hanging a sharp left and emerging a hero from the swim before a short (well, 800m or so) jog back down the esplanade to transition and our bikes. Simple enough it seemed.

Race Day

As is customary for any big race, sleep was desired but delivered in little, intermittent bursts. Not that  the effects are ever really noticed as the adrenaline that starts pumping on race day starts pretty much the night before and continues through to the finish line. Like a natural hit from a triple-double espresso! Final checks, tri-suit on (my nice new one, contrary to the general advice that is not to test out new kit on race day), day bag picked up and a bit of food consumed, and it was out the door by 0430 for the drive down to the beach, complete with sunrise for good measure.

After the usual last minute additions to the bike of race computer, nutrition bottles and a check of tire pressures, and an obligatory and almost ritual ‘pit stop,’ we hopped in Phillipe and Rachael’s car for the short journey down the beach to the swim start, saving us a soggy stroll as the drizzle set in for a pre-swim water start. Wetsuits on. Body Glide applied. Goggles defogged and swim caps donned. This was about to get real and we were pumped and ready!

Big Swim & Scary Surf

All three of us (Rachael, Trace and myself) were assigned to wave 3, the yellow caps, and with the waves lapping at our feet, a helicopter hovering overhead and the sound of our own breathing in our ears as we locked in to our own respective zones, we waited for the countdown and the start horn. “Go!” We were off, calmly but pointedly forging into the surf, remembering the advice of our new South African friends the day before. Once over the initial surf, the buoy was sighted and the focus was on getting into a nice swim rhythm whilst trying to avoid any overwhelming thoughts of what almost certainly lay beneath and beyond. I was generally pleased with my swim, keeping good pace and feeling free and limber in my tri-specific wetsuit, one of the best purchases of the last year, and although sighting the far buoy was tricky, with times when it seemed to get significantly closer followed by appearing another mile away, the swim was pretty fun. There was one “oh shit” moment when something unmistakably large swam beneath me, unfocused and fleeting enough to not allow a definite recognition of what it may have been. Of course I had a very strong idea of what it might have been but other than checking exactly where the rest of the main pack were and swimming pointedly to rejoin them (safety in numbers, right?!) I remained calm, something I would not have predicted even a week ago. Eventually, after what certainly seemed like a longer swim than just 1.4km, I turned back towards shore recalling the advice of the race officials to stay left if we preferred less surf but a fractionally longer run or right, towards the small pier, if we wished to take advantage of the surf and ride it in dolphin style. Most of us, as it transpired, had little opportunity to make a conscious choice as before even realising it I found myself in an area of white water, with several rather alarmed looking fellow swimmers in front of me. When I turned to see what it was they were looking rather aghast at I must confess that I involuntarily blurted out several expletives. The reason for this outburst? Lets just say that what I saw was like something out of one of those Hawaiian surf pro movies: HUGE and THUNDEROUS and TERRIFYING and LOOMING RIGHT DOWN ON US!

There was barely enough time to gasp down a breath before we were consumed by water, swirling and twisting as I remembered to cover my head for protection from either the seabed or other bodies in the water, counting down the seconds – although they started to feel like minutes – before popping to the surface and welcome air. I am used to the drill of being tumbled in surf, having indulged in a little surfing before, but I found myself getting really concerned at one point that I was rapidly running out of breath yet still underwater. Drowning in the sea off Durban was not the way I had envisioned expiring so it was with vocal relief that I found myself airside again, with barely enough time to catch a hasty breath before wave number two came booming down on us. After waves three and four I started to get worried not only for my own safety but also that of other swimmers, some of whom I could see were in more trouble than me. I consider myself a fairly confident and strong swimmer, and had a particularly decent and buoyant wetsuit on whereas there were triathletes in the mix for whom the swim was evidently not their strongest discipline and were now close to full on panic. And I wouldn’t have blamed them! People were losing hats, goggles and becoming disorientated and tired during the onslaught from the waves, with a couple of lifeguards doing what they could from shore. Thankfully the waves were such that they were driving us forward, toward the beach, as opposed to creating a back current, which I am almost certain would have resulted in at least one drowning that morning. As such, as quickly as we found ourselves in the watery equivalent of a Slipknot mosh pit, the waves propelled us into less tumultuous waters and eventually a scramble out on to the beach. I almost forgot to take my wetsuit off at the water such was my desire to get away from the swim and onto the bike, but with wetsuit in hand I joined my fellow battered athletes for the short run down to T1.

Rolling Hills & Views

I’ll be the first to admit that I took way too long in transition and that will be one thing I aim to improve on in future races. However, with 90km ahead of me and no option to return to my bike bag after leaving it I wanted to ensure that nothing essential was forgotten, even spraying on sunscreen, which at the time seemed futile given how sodden I was and how grey and overcast it still was (I was glad of it though later in the day as the sun made a decent appearance). I met Trace at the mount line, with Rachael already off ahead on the bike somewhere. Trace looked both shell-shocked and even said how relieved she was to see me out of the swim – always caring about her athletes – although I wasn’t aware at that point of how bad a time she had had in her swim and how she was now cramping up. A quick jump on the bike and it was off along the promenade, past the football stadium and onto the first of several climbs of the day, nothing too taxing and certainly helped by the Hatta and Jebel Jais training rides. The coastal highway we were on had recently been resurfaced and was closed for the duration of the race, meaning no concerns over danger from motorists and a pleasant, smooth ride, with the downhills being exhilarating. My speedo had me topped out at my fastest at over 57kph, the quickest I have ever been on my bike! I found myself by about kilometre 30 unintentionally playing swapsies with a fellow cyclist as she would pass me on every ascent only for me to sail past her on the descents and flat portions. On the sixteenth (maybe more) passing I jokingly quipped to her that if we were going to continue following each other then I should at least know her name: Christine. So Chris and Christine continued their onward cycle, never drafting I hasten to add in spite of seeing firsthand a few flagrant displays of the same, and came in to the final bike straight after what felt like a really fast and ultimately enjoyable bike leg of the day. I did feel a bit light-headed as I approached transition, suspecting that I had maybe overcooked it slightly on the bike, a dangerous trap to fall into when the element of competition creeps in, but I was certainly looking forward to the final test of the day, run as it would in glorious sunshine and with the sound of music and supporters mixing with the rhythmic pound of the waves.

Dig In & Complete

Once again, transition could have been a little speedier but, again, I wanted to ensure I did not forget anything that I needed for the half marathon, including applying the miracle that is 3B cream. I was told by someone firmly in the know about how awesome that stuff is and can testify that it is, indeed, a lifesaver. Chafing? Pah! I emerged from the tent feeling tired but determined to see the day out in good style and post a decent run time. The first leg of the loop that we ran three of took us away from the main spectator area and finish along the coast to the river inlet, where we turned and headed back. Coming past the transition tent on the return, the noise from the crowd and music kicked in and helped us push on past the central bar area, with the smell of barbecue and beer wafting over us in a combination of both mocking and encouragement, with the thought of what awaited us at the finish being literally there for us to taste. The support from the crowds was brilliant and with the beautiful Garmin girls manning the water station near the last turnaround, the energy was palpable.

I found the first loop the toughest, as perhaps might be expected coming off the bike, with a short walk to take on some nutrition being the only real time that I let my pace drop too low. Initially my plan was to keep my pace at about 5:20 per km but soon switched to monitoring my heart rate instead, keeping it between about 165 and 180bpm, which seemed to work. I saw Rachael initially on the return leg of her second loop and then a few times more, noting how comfortable she looked. Clearly on for an impressive time and having what was evidently a blinding race, she crossed the line first out of the three of us. A truly epic effort indeed! As I reached the final two kilometres of the run I spotted Rachael and Phillipe in the spectator area, taking the opportunity to jettison the Amphipod I had been carrying since the start, and lose the bike gloves that I’d forgotten to take off in transition. Perhaps it was the new sense of weightlessness or simply the knowledge that I was tantalisingly close to the finish line, but I found a surge of energy from somewhere – why don’t they ever come earlier in the race when they would of more use?! – and after giving Trace a holler of encouragement, stuck my foot down and found myself motoring to the finish line, slowing in order to savour the actual moment of crossing. I had done it! I had completed my first half iron distance race (ignoring the fact that the total distance was a little under the official half IM distance) and put to bed some of the demons that I hadn’t quite realised were lingering from Tahoe. Everyone had been saying that I should find a race to do but I didn’t really feel in the mood. Racing and finishing in Durban, however, made me realise how badly I did need to race, having trained so hard for so long. If anything the post-race beer tasted exquisite and was a welcome reward at the end.

Rachael collects her trophy at TriRock Durban 2014
Rachael collects her trophy at TriRock Durban 2014

Trace finished a little after and with everyone lined up along the finish chute we cheered her on to the line, able to now bask in the fact that we had come through it and had a great day. The prize giving saw Rachael walk away with a trophy on account of coming in third in her age group, an incredible achievement and one that serves as an inspiration to the rest of us to continue training and racing hard. With the day finally coming to a close, it was time to pick up our bikes and various sundries, head on back up the hill, leaving Tri Rock Durban behind for this year and contemplating a return next year for more of the same (well, maybe calmer seas). An initial detour via Rachael and Phillipe’s for celebratory nibbles and champagne was in order and after suitably toasting the success of our trip Trace and I headed back to Kloof where another amazing meal awaited, as well as a much needed and well deserved sleep.

Rest & Recuperation

Nelson Mandela Capture Site sculpture
Nelson Mandela Capture Site sculpture

My flight was due to leave Monday evening, meaning a late afternoon check-in. This allowed us to all take a short trip inland, away from the surf, beyond Pietermaritzburg in order to check out some of the Midlands region of Natal province, and to also take Trace’s 95 year old grandmother out for lunch. If I am as spritely and vivacious at that age as she is then I will be a very pleased man indeed. The trip started with a visit to the Nelson Mandela Capture Site museum, where we learnt more about the man that would go on to lead South Africa out of the clutches of apartheid, and to look out over the beautiful surrounding countryside beyond the extremely cool sculpture that depicts Nelson Mandela’s face but only once you get close to it and stand in a certain spot. Very clever. The next stop was a fantastic farm shop for some supply shopping, including my new favourites of biltong and koeksisters, and a cheeky little local samosa (incredible!) as an appetiser before our main meal of the day with Trace’s gran. The venue for our lunch was a working microbrewery in the town of Hilton, with the generous beers poured fresh almost directly from the brewing vats themselves. Yet again the food was epic and I felt myself lamenting a little at the fact that I was to shortly leave all of this and return to life as normal back home. Still, that is the nature of travel: one must return. After saying our goodbyes, leaving Rachael and Phillipe to continue their trip up the coast in search of ever more incredible surf breaks, we returned to King Shaka airport where I left Trace to another day of South African fun and disappeared to find my plane home. An amazing trip, with incredible people, both those I knew from home and new friends met and made in South Africa, all with some great memories of my return to my roots.

Finally! A medal!
Finally! A medal!

FINAL RACE RESULTS:
Finished in 5 HOURS, 23 MINUTES, 47 SECONDS
Swim (including run to transition): 40 mins 40 s
Bike: 2 hrs, 52 mins, 57 s
Run: 1 hr, 38 mins, 33 s

If you would like to continue following the training and racing exploits of Chris as he prepares for his new challenge of racing Ironman Lake Tahoe 2015, then you can do so via the website www.ironvet.net or via the Facebook page, Ironvet 2014. Similarly, if you would like to donate to the WVS and support Chris’ chosen charity in this challenge, then you can do so at www.justgiving.com/ironvet.