***many thanks to Kenneth Heney for this race report ***
What happened to the beautiful Dubai weather that is typical for this time of year? I like a tough course and this triathlon stuff is not meant to be a walk in the park, but that was simply upsetting.
Down at the Jumeriah beach at 04:30am on Friday 27th, it was cold and ridiculously windy, but I was there to go hard and fast round the inaugural Challenge Dubai. While setting up the bike and dropping in my transition bags, I was sure that this would have to turn into a duathlon, with the flags and barriers being blown around like unconvincingly tethered kites, the sea conditions were not good. And then we had the small matter of cycling at least half the course into this stupid headwind.
Well, announcements came about the swim, and a decision was made to change the swim course, not shorten or omit it, but to change it to 2 loops within what was considered a sheltered bay area, rather than a single loop which would have taken the swimmers out to more ‘open’ waters. Down at the start, it still looked too choppy for little old me to swim in, and I consider myself to be a good swimmer.
The pro men went off first and then the pro women, some of whom were pushed down the beach away from the swim turnaround point and exit, resulting in them having to run back up the beach to start their second loop. It looked chaotic and unorganised, but ‘Insha'Allah’, this was Dubai.
Swim – 32:02
A wet suit swim in the worst sea conditions I’ve ever swam in. I couldn’t sight the buoys because of the swell, and trying to breath I took on ridiculous quantities of sea water, panicking me at points as I really did struggle to get a breath on occasions. I made to the first buoy, turned and managed to find the second buoy, then turned for the shore to try and complete my first loop. But I couldn't see any buoys, nor the swim exit flags and before I knew it I couldn't see any swimmers around me. I clearly had messed up, and was feeling very concerned bobbing about in the ocean in the miserable weather conditions breathing sea water and pockets of air when I could. I had to go for something on the land, and having stupidly not identified a land based sight in line with the exit, I went for the Burj Khalifa.
Well, that took me way way off course, and when I started to come across swimmers coming towards me I knew I was so wrong. I tried to correct, but I really just wanted to get out of the water and onto the shore. Eventually, I was washed up onto the beach nearer the start than the turn around, so had to embarrassingly run back along the beach in front of the amazing support that had gathered on the beach that morning, and to make it worse, someone cheered for me,… I had been recognised.
Well, I never quit, so back in to the nightmare I flopped and more sea water I drank, as I thrashed out to the first buoy again. With a left turn and more thrashing, I made it to the second buoy, and with more swimmers around me as more competitors were in the water, I took a line significantly further down the beach than the first time round and latched onto a few others which got me to the end of the horrendous first leg of this ridiculous sport that we do for fun.
T1 – 02:58
Through transition I dropped my swim hat, but didn’t bother to pick up as I really didn’t want any souvenir to remind me of that bloody swim. I was feeling sick with the amount of salty water sloshing around in my stomach, but I moved on and found my bag, slipped out of the neoprene and popped the helmet on with relative ease.
Bike – 2:38:36
I was pleased to be out of the water, and pleased that I was being blown down the road, as I was feeling very sick and if I had of had to put any effort in to moving the bike, I would have struggled. So the high winds pushed me away from the shore and out to Meydan, where I began to feel better and move up into higher gears to make the most of this tailwind.
It was a fast first half of the bike, with only a few stretches where the wind was not behind you, so I ate my muesli bar when I felt more stable, and pushed some big gears out on the closed highways to International City.
The course got somewhat confusing with little signage that had not been blown away, and police marshalling roundabouts as a secondary task to their conversing with colleagues or on their mobile phones. At several roundabouts, I had to rely on shouting at them to try and get a hand signal for the correct roundabout, or take the one where there wasn’t a stacked queue of irate drivers cursing at the lycra clad prioritised road users of that Friday morning.
Sure enough, after 50 ish km, we had to turn to go back to the coast, and what an unwelcome turn that was. Relentless head winds ringing in your ears, burning your face with the abrasive sand content whipped up off the desert landscape. The sight of a roundabout, brought a little hope that a change of direction would be favourable, but with my mental wellbeing being sanded away, it seemed that any change of direction was a turn into the wind. It seemed to be funnelled down the course into the eyes of the cyclist, no matter what direction back to shore we were turned in. Rarely, with the head wind not directly a headwind, the wind was a little from the left or the right, but still in your face. And the carpet of blown sand was moving rapidly across the road as my wheels turned slowly below my broken body.
A short reprieve as we traversed across with the Meydan Hotel to the left, before turning onto the D69 to hit what must have been the worst stretch for me at least. I was honestly nearly crying with the grimace that not only disfigured my face, but dissolved my desire to ever participate in this sport again. I pay to do this; this is supposed to be fun I cry to myself, and a couple more powerful bikers pass me as I snail up over the bridge at Al Khail Road. I am angry; my stomach is still not happy filled with sea water which I have now topped up with gel and muesli; I am upset and I am frustrated with these ridiculous conditions,… but I am not done yet.
T2 – 01:34
So happy to be off the bike, it is launched onto my shoulder and carried to be discarded on the scaffolding rail around about the 211 mark. I needed the toilet, but by the time I had my shoes on and a serious gulp of Pocari Sweat down my throat, I was already running angry, and out onto the run course.
Run – 1:26:38
The course was an out and back 5km route, of two loops along the boardwalks of Jumeirah beach, and therefore pancake flat. But there was still that bloody wind filing the many kite surfers with joy and the triathletes with pain. The first 5km was into the wind, but as I was off the bike and on a mission, I was punching through it with some nice 4 minute kilometre splits. My anger turned progressively less as I passed one by one, many of the athletes whom had smugly slipped by me on the bike course through the hurricane.
The surface was a soft running track or a wooden board walk which felt too springy for fast running, so the seldom opportunity to trip along on the concrete paving blocks which are laid between the two surfaces was taken which seemed to lift my pace just into the sub 4 min kms.
The route was not well marshalled, and although it was obvious where to go, it meant that the public were not prevented from putting themselves or their children in your way, or for me, a very kind chap who decided to drive his 4x4 pulling a 39ft yacht right in front of me as slow as he possibly could go without stopping, across the track. The result for me was a 30 second ish expletive filled stop.
On turning at 5km, I was heading back to the hub of the event to complete the first loop with the wind behind me and feeling pretty bloody good, using mind games to tick of the distance and convince myself that I was strong enough to work at this rate to the finish.
I don’t know who was shouting for me, but there was a lot of great support out there, and the horrible swim and killer bike leg, was a distant memory as I smiled my way through the head wind back out to the far turning point. Then it was simply a case of opening up the stride and letting the wind take me in.
I finished this race, and take the positives away from the run. But I made a right hash of the swim and realised again that I really am not an uber biker. Despite everything, the pain disappears very quickly, and the memories of the support along the run route, the comradery between the many friends I have made in this sport at the end, and the shared success of completion with my equally successful fiancé makes the addiction to the pleasurable euphoria of triathlon, undeniable.
Challenge had a difficult day to deal with, and it is clear that there is a lot they can do to improve this race, but for a first time event it wasn’t half bad. They may start with considering using a slightly lighter weight metal alloy for the medal to perhaps reduce the weight below cabin luggage restrictions.
These difficult and challenging races are the ones that we all talk about for years to come; I will never forget the inaugural Challenge Dubai, which almost made me cry.