*** many thanks to Nick Boyd for this race report ***

As dawn’s first light spread across the beach on a cool November morning, competitors waited nervously for the starter’s announcement, feet shuffling quietly on the sand and hands fiddling with goggles.  Looking at their chiselled features and fancy sports leotards, I wondered if I really had the fitness to get through the race.  There was just time for someone to remind me to remove my t-shirt and then the hooter sounded.  We were into the water, we were off and racing…..

Less than forty minutes later, I was crossing the finish line of the first Ashurst Aquathon.   Twelve hours later I was a member of TriDubai and, twelve months later, I was on the start line for the Dubai International Triathlon.  The scale and ambition of Race ME’s events had certainly changed; mine too.

Standing on the beach at Atlantis, the big day brought with it a spattering of rain, a smattering of professionals and a seagull attacking a drone.  I had signed up for the race after much encouragement from far more experienced TriDubai members with far better bikes and far less regard for my family life.  After a brief pretence that I could balance training with other commitments, I gave in (“It’s your funeral mate” was one helpful comment) and targeted six hours as an achievable time – until I did some running during the heat of the day and saw the wind forecast for the race.

The clock ticked round to 0630 and, moments after the hooter, a hundred Garmins bleeped into life and we were heads down, with arms and legs thrashing and smashing through the water.  In the churn, the struggle to avoid flailing limbs was desperate.  I saw a gap ahead and surged into it as the two swimmers ahead converged on me like the Symplegades.  I squeezed through and prepared for the wrestling match at the first buoy.  As we went round it, a female head popped up and roared at the writhing mob: “FUCK OFF MEN!”  Maybe starting in mixed waves is not such a good idea after all….

As the field spread after the second buoy, I concentrated on finding someone kind enough to lead me around the rest of the course.  Apparently, this is what proper triathletes do.  I managed to hook into the slipstream of three people at different stages, which was lucky as my sighting is otherwise as reliable as a blindfolded mole’s.  (Insert your own cheap gag here about my swimming not being much better than a blindfolded mole’s either.)

Swim time: a very satisfying 33 mins 50 secs (distance swum: 2.15 km – maybe my draftsmen’s sighting wasn’t so flawless).

T1: too long as usual (must stop using a hairdryer).

Onto the bike, which quickly became an obstacle course to avoid the bottles smacking down onto the road after each speedbump.  I was off the Palm without mishap, whizzing through the tunnel and out onto Al Sufouh Road, before turning into Hessa Street to be greeted by a wall of sound outside Dubai College.  After showing my appreciation by knocking two bottles out of volunteers’ hands at the aid station, I was off up to Sports City.  Without a power meter, I tried to heed the advice of more experienced riders and keep my cadence consistent, not attacking the inclines or cruising the declines.  After the turn, the wind was blowing full on and that is where it felt like the race began in earnest. 

On the ride, I had planned on an average speed of 30 km/h and refuelling consistently to make sure I was in good shape for the run.  After two loops of Hessa Street, my average speed was close to 33 km/h and I’d had one gel.  I felt like I was over-cooked even though I was taking on plenty of water.  By the end of the third loop, the struggle into the wind had caused my speed to drop significantly and, despite the thrill of having the wide empty spaces of Al Sufouh Street completely to myself, I had lost all rhythm.  I struggled up the Palm on shaky legs, wondering what treats the run had in store for me. 

Coming to the end of the course, the support outside the Aquaventure car park was overwhelming and energising, enough to make me feel like a real athlete.  It was such a distraction that I shot across the dismount line still clipped in.  Either that or my feet are just too darned big to slide gracefully out of my shoes without tipping me off my bike.

Bike time: a pleasing 2 hrs 53 mins (and counting my blessings that my woeful mechanical skills hadn’t been tested).

T2: too long again (couldn’t find my masseuse).

Out onto the run and my legs felt disconnected from my body.  I had been rigorous about brick sessions and was planning an average speed of 5.45 per km but the first kilometre seemed to be taking twice as long as that.  I checked my watch when it bleeped: 4.40!  I was tempted to keep going at the same rate but, wary of many race reports warning against blowing up on long runs, I slowed down and then slowed some more. 

After about 7km, I was feeling very lethargic and unable to pick up the pace.  I had a gel and then some Coke at the next aid station.  Their effect was galvanising and, before I knew it, I was halfway round, walking and drinking at the aid stations but feeling strong running between them.  The sun was shining, the breeze was fresh, the rolling sea looked gorgeous, the support was invigorating and I was happily waving and shouting to (maybe at) everyone I knew on the course.  This was shaping up to be a glorious day.

With about 6.5 km to go, I took a first look at my overall time for the race: 5 hrs 02 mins!  I re-checked my watch, it still said the same.  Oh crikey, I was going to make it, this was looking good.  From then on, although my legs disagreed (vehemently), I felt like I could only go faster.  There was now no danger of not finishing – I’d crawl the rest if needed.  To me, this was not just the final part of the furthest I’d ever run to finish the longest race I’d ever done, these were the closing moments of three months of making training a priority and being careful about my diet and stretching my family’s patience and ignoring my (non-tri) friends and boring my colleagues.

Suddenly I was past the final aid station and turning back towards the Aquaventure car park.  Then I was into the car park, ditching my sponges and zipping up my sports leotard.  Then I was running up the finish chute with a ridiculously broad grin spread across my chops, onto the magic carpet and heading towards a timer that said 5 hrs 35 mins.  And then - finally, blessedly - I was across the line, clutching a medal whose size and weight would gratify an Olympian.

Run time: a decent 2 hrs exactly.

Total time: an astonishing 5 hrs 35 mins.

Here are my reflections on the experience, particularly training and preparation (you can stop reading here if you’ve done more than about two races and/or set your sights anywhere near a podium place):

  1. Learn from everyone.  I found advice and encouragement everywhere, even if they did not, on the face of it, bear any relation to my own modest goals.  Sources included random snippets from the internet, race reports about the Ironman World Championships, people training for Ironman World Championships, even people with no triathlon background who asked questions that made me think about my approach.  (I also learnt it’s called a tri-suit, not a sports leotard.)
  2. Enjoy the training. I am not a technical athlete, triathlon is simply a more rewarding alternative to sitting in a bar or lounging on the sofa.  My training plan was “The 12 Week Time Poor 70.3 Plan”, a two page guide printed off the internet which I looked at about once a week.  I tried to do as much of my training as possible with buddies because I have found the friendships made through training are just as enjoyable as any race result.  Consequently, I never missed any training because I didn’t feel like it, was disorganised or hit the snooze button too many times.
  3. Get a good training group. Being with TriDubai means you are part of an awesome community whose zeal and openness is palpable and unparalleled in most other sports.  For me, it went all the way to the morning of the race with the guy in transition next to me sharing the benefit of his broad experience even as we made final preparations.  It is also useful to have other mates with whom you can train and share your enthusiasm but who are also part of your non-triathlon life (if you still have one).  Chapeau here to the men of DTF, and a clap of the paddles to the coaches and lower lane companions at DMSC as well.
  4. Be proportionate about kit.  Triathlon can be expensive but it does not have to break the bank.  It all depends on the objective.  I have a relatively cheap bike and just about resisted spanking lots of money on bits and pieces, however much I envy the smart stuff. 
  5. Be diligent about the build-up to the race.  I felt that I had tapered for too long (starting two weeks before the race) but I now think that this was a key reason why, although there were hard spells during the race, I never felt like I was on my chinstraps.  In addition, I never felt particularly hungry or thirsty during the race; I had followed a strict pre-race diet for a week beforehand (no caffeine, no sugar, extra salt, lots of water) and used race nutrition that was low in sugar.

A final word to Race ME: it was a brilliant event.  Like many participants, I doubt I will ever travel for a race so staging this on our doorstep and bringing a part of Dubai to a halt for us is massively appreciated.  Understandably, some of you looked more exhausted than the competitors by the end of the event so I hope that you all feel as much sense of achievement as many of us do.  The support from spectators and contribution from the volunteers was a huge part of the day too, and made the experience very memorable.