I swerved and wobbled, narrowly missing the foot of a metre-high, bright orange cone separating the racecourse from the other three lanes of motorway. These oversized triangles were spaced at ten-metre intervals the entire length of the 90km bike ride (someone had gone to a lot of bother to lay them out and was clearly going to miss the after-party clearing the road again) and my front wheel seemed hell bent on playing skittles with them.
This was about the sixth time I’d come close to taking a dive into the speeding traffic on my right and I willed myself to concentrate harder. I looked again at my Garmin: if I went any slower I was in danger of falling off my bike even without the help of the cones. I was barely a third of the way into the bike segment of the race and was trundling along solo; most of the other pro girls had sailed off into the distance and weren’t even specs on the dead straight, slowly rising highway ahead of me.
Photo © Ingo Kutsche
My day was continuing to unfold in the slightly dazed, unfocused fashion it had begun a few hours before. After dozing for a measly two hours and forcing down an athletic breakfast listening to NRJ FM on the in-room TV, I walked down to the lobby at 5am trying to get myself into race mode. I felt calm and serene; even my gut, which before most races demonstrated the incomprehensible and nasty need to empty itself entirely every ten minutes, was worryingly well-behaved. Apologies for the graphic insight.
Even at that early hour the Metropolitan was as overstaffed as I was growing accustomed to: the concierge, porters and doormen almost fell over each other trying to find out if I needed a taxi. No no, I’ll just borrow the luggage cart and use it as a scooter thanks.
A fellow athlete was hanging around outside in his race kit. I thought I’d be friendly and ask if he wanted to share the taxi. I’ve got a car, he replied, but you’re more than welcome to jump in.
Oh, OK. Actually, wow, cool, thanks! Cheers guys, you can keep the taxi and luggage cart.
His name was Freddy, he was from South Africa but lived in Abu Dhabi for work and had left his family sound asleep in the room while he drove himself to the start. He just needed to go and get his bags and gear at another hotel down the road before heading to transition; he would only be a minute fetching them. I didn’t really get the full gist of it but as long as I was at transition by 5.30am I would be in plenty of time to set up my bike and head to the start. How long did it take to clip on a pair of bike shoes and stuff a bidon into a bottle holder anyway?
A few minutes into our chat, the valet drove up in an enormous white vehicle with black tinted windows worthy of Barack Obama, and handed over the keys: beats you average taxi by a country mile!
Speaking of which… I glanced over at Freddy and saw he was doing marginally better than the average Dubai taxi driver (more on this here): rather than ask me for a map, he had pulled out his mobile phone and was booting up Google Maps. Uh oh… The big car purred and slid silently out of the hotel entrance in the opposite direction to the one we were supposed to be going in. I wiped my sweaty palms down my thighs rather than on the leather seat. Thankfully we only took a three-kilometre detour round the block rather than a visit to downtown Dubai. Within ten minutes we pulled up in front of another hotel, one I clearly won’t be staying in ever unless I win a couple of million at the lottery. Freddy hopped out, promising to be just a minute and silencing the protesting doorman – you can’t leave your car here Sir! – with a few urgent words.
The minute stretched to two…, to four…, to six…. The nervous doorkeeper finally lost it and opened the door. “I drive”, he announced, getting into the driver’s seat. Oh really? Thanks for asking. I watched fascinated as without bothering to adjust seat nor mirrors he expertly manoeuvred the automatic monster between a sleek grey Ferrari and a rather less sleek but no less imposing potted bush. He left the engine running and disappeared.
Eight…, ten… Freddy chucked his bags into the child seat in the back and got behind the wheel. 5.25am. He reached for his phone then thought better of it. “Do you know which turnoff we need to take to get to transition?” he asked.
What else could I do but laugh and relax? I offered to navigate as he finally noticed the time and apologised about five times. Capping things off in style, we missed the side road by miles thanks to my expertise, sailing straight past and hanging a Uey a few kilometres further up the road. We left the white mammoth parked on someone’s lawn and legged it to our bikes, making it there by 5.40. All things considered I reckon we did pretty good. In fact Freddy was more stressed than I was by the end. I thanked him and wished him luck for the race, assuring him I didn’t need a lift to the start: walking there would be a great warm-up – and I might get there with a little more than five minutes to spare.
Swim warm up in the dark
An hour and something later I was lined up behind the tape, shaking with cold in the 15C air but strangely numb in the head. I wasn’t nervous, the adrenaline wasn’t pumping and my body – or head’s – lack of willingness to race became very apparent when almost the entire pack of girls swam away from me 400 metres into the swim. I watched them go, absolutely powerless. Oh no. Oh no no no. I thrashed around for a bit, trying to keep them in sight. Swallowed a stomachful of saltwater as I swam into rather than around one of the giant yellow marker buoys. Nope, they were well and truly gone. Why did I wear clear goggles again? The sun shone straight into my face as I tried to make out where on Earth the beach was, never mind the swim exit arch.
Please let my brain at least get the message through to my legs when I get on the bike… No chance. My quads ached, my position felt as uncomfortable as the first day I sat on the bike four months ago and my heartrate wouldn’t even have caused my Garmin’s zone 2 alarm to beep. I did a bit of kindergarten arithmetic to work out my average speed and vowed not to do it again. Wondered what job I would do if I wasn’t an athlete (still wondering about that one). Willed myself to keep going. Counted minutes (only 19’24?? How is that even possible, I’ve been pedalling for hours?) Watched the kilometres add up, one by tedious one. Opted to count down the remaining distance instead. Terrible idea. Counted down the distance just to the turnaround instead – marginally better, especially with the promise of a tail-wind, downhill spin back into town. Which was exactly what I got, minus the spin: my 53×12 setup didn’t provide nearly enough gears, so I just kept right on freewheeling, sitting up to relieve my aching shoulders at regular intervals and watching the amateur boys on their souped-up toys come roaring through. Drink? Not thirsty. Eat? Not hungry. Can still taste the quinoa and yoghurt breakfast I had at 4am. Or is it the peanut butter wrap? Anyway mate, at this rate I’m not even burning enough calories to justify the isotonic drink weighing my frame down, never mind snacking en route.
I kept myself entertained watching the fancy cars drive past – I have to admit a roadbike mounted on the back of a Porsche 911 looks kinda cool. At one point I even tried to race three guys on bikes who were doing their Sunday ride on the cycle path along the motorway. I lost.
At last, I made it back to the beach and got rid of my bike. The usual moment of truth during a triathlon: am I going to be able to run or are the old legs going to buckle at step three and I’m going to be left to drag my sorry carcass up and down the beach promenade in front of bemused tourists for the best part of two hours?
Run course view
I ran. I relaxed, found a rhythm and ran. I wasn’t running for my life, I sure as hell wasn’t setting the world on fire and I couldn’t even really call it racing, but I wasn’t making a complete and utter idiot of myself either. I let my feet go and it was such a relief to feel there was still something alive inside of me that I ended up almost enjoying it and crossing the line not with huge disappointment, but something more like reassurance. Yes, my performance was poor – in fact for a professional to be caught napping like that should be an offense. But it wasn’t completely hopeless. I may not ever threaten the top of the field, yet if I can get myself into race mode on a course which inspires me a little more than a four-lane motorway, I should be able to do a little better than that.
Photo © Ingo Kutsche
Number one lesson I will walk away from Dubai with: if you don’t want to do a race, don’t. Don’t let someone talk you into it, it won’t get you anywhere. Choose the races you want to go to, enjoy them and race them properly. Half-assed attempts don’t make anyone happy.
And lesson number two? Never hesitate to speak to your fellow athletes. I could have taken a lonely taxi ride down to transition, been there half an hour earlier than necessary and faffed around uselessly, getting cold. Instead I met a great person who helped make my day memorable and who I can call a friend next time we meet at a race. Cheers Freddy!
More race adventures coming soon 🙂