Triathlon Plus senior writer Tom Ballard reports on his amazing visit to the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon.
When TriRadar was invited to the Abu Dhabi International Triathlon, I knew it would be an interesting trip and a great race, but I have to admit, I wasn’t prepared for just what a fantastic experience the event would be.
The Abu Dhabi International Triathlon has always lived up to its name and since the race was first run in 2010, it’s grown into an ever-bigger event, with triathletes from around the world seeking to compete in the unique distances on offer. This year, the race enjoyed its most spectacular incarnation so far, eclipsing the previous competitor totals and breaking 2,000 athletes for the first time.
I’d never visited the United Arab Emirates before, but would go back in a heartbeat. Flying across with Etihad, the UAE’s national airline, was an absolute pleasure that makes the cramped quarters of more economy-based flying coaches seem even more claustrophobic in retrospect. It was an effortless journey and one that, armed with my compression tights, didn’t worry my legs in advance of the big race.
Getting through the airport was simple and, armed with the name of my hotel – the luxurious Khalidiya Palace Rayhaan – I made my way to the taxi station. One white knuckle ride later (I later learned that I’d accidentally chosen the equivalent of a dodgy London mini cab) and I was at the Abu Dhabi Triathlon’s official hotel.
UK time a thing of the past thanks to an early start and a long day of travelling, all there was to do was get to bed for a few hours’ sleep before the pre-race festivities. Luckily this was in by far the nicest hotel room I’ve ever had the pleasure to stay in. Cool marble floors, a rich, thick rug, sofa, walk-in shower, bath, fridge, kitchen counter and glass topped desk area met me, though I admit, the thing I was keenest on was the supremely comfortable double bed, into which I flopped, asleep before hitting the pillow.
With morning arriving at the equivalent of 2.30am UK time, the first port of call was the beach to swim the race course. Taking a proper taxi this time (see, I’m learning already), I pulled on my wetsuit and got into the pleasantly cool water, which was so salty, it practically made me levitate with the additional buoyancy it provided. It also instantly purged moisture from my mouth so that as I left the sea 30 minutes later, I could say with certainty that it was the driest open water session I’ve ever done!
Next was one of the most important rituals in international triathlon: the buffet breakfast. Here, I made fast work of three large plates of pancakes, fruit, croissants and more pancakes – not daring to try the omelettes created while-you-wait by a behatted chef as Caroline Steffen was doing just that and, well, she’s just too intimidatingly pro-triathlete looking to get in the way of.
Following a prolonged sit at the breakfast table while the feeling of over-feeding sadness subsided, it was back to floor 10 via one of the shiny glass lifts I had previously thought only existed in movies for the purpose of being jumped on by Tom Cruise. Walking into the panelled and brass-fitted interior of the elevator I was met with the shining white teeth, sun-burnished skin and chiselled looks of genuine triathlon hero, Chris McCormack.
After staring and going red for a few moments, I proffered my hand to shake his, promptly dropping the contents of my arms onto the floor, which the great man himself bent to collect, but not before a warm handshake that seemed to whisper, ‘Yeah, I’m Chris McCormack, two-time Ironman world champion, but also, I’m just a nice bloke.’ Ok, so I might be reading too much into that, but I’m sure it’s true.
Next on the agenda was the pro press conference, which served to emphasise the growing stature of the event and its place in the region’s plan to promote health and fitness. It was also another chance to admire just how sinewy pro triathletes really are. Seriously, you can’t really find the extra five pounds that the camera’s supposed to add in photos of these guys and girls anyway, but up close, it’s amazing how lean they are. It also made me feel decidedly chunky and determined to get back to race weight as soon as possible – well, once I’d made the most of the hotel’s delicious hospitality anyway.
Alistair Brownlee was lounging at ease in a chair, confirming to the Beeb over the phone that he would indeed make the jump to long course racing after Rio. In the company of his deeply-tanned iron-colleagues, his lightly sun-reddened nose, freckled face and slight frame made him an unassuming personality despite the gold medal and world championship titles.
After finally plucking up the courage to say hello to Caroline Steffen, who hit me with a beaming smile and a gracious tone, my thoughts returned to the race ahead. Keeping my mind from obsessing about race day is a tricky conundrum that I’ve not yet managed to crack. But travelling two hours out into proper Lawrence of Arabia country and being driven around sand dunes in a 4×4 is probably the best attention-diverter I’ve experienced yet. We swooped down sand banks, shot to the top of crumbling ridges and hung immobile at the crest of drops before being expertly swung to and fro, sand flying out in sheets, bythe driver’s deft movements of the wheel.
We were then driven back to the Arabian Nights Village, where the 4×4 adventure is based. The venue is a sort of luxury campsite with traditional dwellings re-imagined in modern materials. We were treated to some truly incredible traditional food while being serenaded by folk songs courtesy of the strong voice and flying fingers of a guitar-playing entertainer.
Leaving rather unwillingly, it was a bumpy ride back to the hotel and time to unpack the startlingly beautiful Felt AR4 from its bag, put the tri bars on and give it a quick spruce up for the morning. I’d paired the aero road bike with a fittingly aero wheelset, Mavic’s Cosmic Carbone SLR, in preparation for the flat bike course. All together, it looked absolutely stunning, and the thought struck me that I must now certainly be one of those irritating ponces whose bikes are far better than they are. Mostly undeterred, it was back to bed, the nerves already starting to play the drums on my innards as I got ready for the interminable wait of the day before the race.
After another all-too-short sleep, the nerves were arriving thick and fast, with my guts feeling like they were trying to escape my body by travelling upwards through my stomach.
I headed out to the swim start to find pros, photographers and an army of age-groupers from all over the globe swarming the beach, pointing out at the buoys to plan their route, pulling on wetsuits and generally seemingly polarised between jocular excess and quiet nervousness.
The race transition and swim start take place at the Corniche, a beautiful stretch of white-sanded beach in front of the three-laned road that would be closed the next day to make way for over 2,000 triathletes. The area is packed with eateries and has a wonderfully safe family atmosphere, indeed the scariest thing about being there was seeing the enormous red carpet of transition where Felty would soon be hanging.
Another morning swim completed – with water to revitalise my salt-shrunken tongue afterwards – it was time to get out on the bike, which drew covetous glances from even the most hardened Cervelo-phile despite not being an all-out TT bike.
The roads in Abu Dhabi are generally quite busy, so on the advice of a fellow triathlete, I headed towards the nearby building site of the new, and opulent, Presidential Palace to find the promised up and down strip in front of the area clear of cars. I spun through the gears, hoping that my legs would miraculously feel better by the time I pulled the bike from T1. Sure the bike was working as desired even if my legs weren’t, it was back to the hotel.
A quick change onto a not so quick run gave me a real taste of the dry, bleaching heat out in Abu Dhabi. Sucking in the warm air, I wondered how it would feel running in the same conditions with a stiff back after 100km on the tri bars. This was a little demoralising though, so I tried to think of happier things, like destroying the evening buffet to cram in just a few more carbs.
Kit was soon laid out and bagged, pulled out of the bags and then re-checked and re-bagged before heading to transition. The guys from the local bike shop, Wolfi’s, helped out with a few last minute tweaks to the bike before I racked my bags and Felty, and then indulged in wandering the rows to check out all the amazing bikes, which must have totalled near enough £2m. My nervousness was creeping ever higher by now, so I thought it would be a good idea to get some food in before it was too late.
The hotel was clearly prepared for ravenous triathletes and provided all the carbs and protein any athlete could want to store enough energy for the following day. Three plates of rice, pasta and chicken were deposited into my belly, with the thought that I’d need every calorie while out on the road during the race. The only hard part would be keeping them there until 8:10 the next morning without nervy sickness forcibly ejecting them.
A surprisingly trouble-free sleep saw me awake early and eager to get down to transition. The morning was cool at 6am with the sun just starting to creep above Abu Dhabi’s flat landscape. An hour later, with drinks bottles aboard the bike and final checks complete, it was a different story; the sun had zipped into the sky and things were already starting to heat up.
For the first time ever, the race was being streamed live around the web as well as being broadcast on local television, and on the big screen by transition, pro triathletes could be seen preparing to start their races at the edge of the water. Soon Frederik Van Leirde, Chris McCormack, Caroline Steffen, Mel Hauschildt, Alistair Brownlee and their fellow competitors were in the water and away, meaning it was time for us short course age-groupers to get going.
While the 3km, 200km, 20km long course is aptly named, the short course label is perhaps a misnomer that belittles the task of completing a 1.5km swim, 100km bike and 10km run, especially in 30 degree heat. Nevertheless, we gathered on the beach and the atmosphere, while nervously excited, was also one of the warmest and friendliest I’ve ever raced under.
I readied myself for the usual melee as the countdown began. The siren blared, followed immediately by the replying chorus of Garmins beeping as their owners started their timers. The swim was surprisingly calm and with no untoward violence, the field soon spread out. Just under 25 minutes later, I was running to transition, which, I’d already decided, I wouldn’t beat myself up for being lengthy. I plastered my face, ears and neck with suncream and headed out to find Felty just where I’d left him.
Then it was just me, the bike and the open road for 100km. Throughout the day, the roads were packed with a multi-ethnic throng of triathletes on a range of bikes from flat bars to P5s and in retrospect, it went by in a blur. I made sure to log my thoughts at the time though, which were that the smooth, fast roads played off really well against the headwinds and heat to create a really challenging bike route that asked a lot of your legs, but gave so much more.
So many factors of the ride add up to the reason the Abu Dhabi Triathlon is already valued so highly around the world as being an incredible race. Cruising at 26mph along the straight, closed highway; hammering up the few rises out the saddle; swapping bottles with the army of helpers at the many aid stations, shouting words of encouragements as the long distance pros – alarmingly – zoomed past, already on their second lap; overtaking people on better bikes; being overtaken by riders on old aluminium steeds; all of it fed the atmosphere that you’re in the middle of something really special.
The jewel in the crown of the bike leg is the loop around the Formula 1 circuit at Yas Marina. Reserved only for short and long course athletes – sprinters need not apply – flashing around the bends at 28mph was an amazing and exciting feeling that brought a huge smile to the face and one that I will never, ever forget.
The bike ride was very, very hot though. I’d put an extra bottle of water on the bike to spray my helmet, arms and legs and used this liberally to stay cool. Even so, sweat was running in rivulets, staining my kit with salt.
The last 10 miles of the bike were hard work for me, and more a case of surviving than pushing the pace. It was also about this time that it dawned on me that, conscientious as I was in ladling sunscreen on my face and neck, I had inexplicably forgotten to do the same on my legs, which were already starting to burn. After what seemed like an age, seeing familiar faces from the last section of the ride move forward and backwards a few places, the enormous UAE flag appeared, towering in the distance above the boulevard that led back to the Corniche. The ride was thankfully over after 3:03.
The run was, if anything, even hotter. Taking place on the pathway by the side of the sea and running out to the giant flag and back, it’s a simple route with a gratifyingly high number of chances to grab water, pepsi and ice cold sponges from the many aid stations. It took at least 3km to find any kind of running form and for a spiky stitch to subside. Even after that, I never got near the pace I know I could normally have done. This actually let me enjoy the run a little more though and appreciate the unique scenery around me. I pushed it as hard as I could with the heat certainly my toughest competitor.
Finally onto the red carpet, which was indecently long, I didn’t even have the strength to pull a victory pose over the line, instead, I just sort of crumpled after finishing. It’s a bit blurry now, but I remember walking zombie-like to sit in the transition tent for a good while before being able to get up again – and that’s always the sign of a good performance for me! I’d finished this amazing race in 4:27:29, a time I’m really happy with, but would love to return to Abu Dhabi and beat one day.
Log your training for free at the TriRadar.com Training Zone.