The holidaymaker wandering into the hotel’s breakfast buffet presumably thinks his T-shirt bearing the slogan ‘Your Workout Is My Warm-up’ makes him seem pretty hardcore and, in normal circumstances, he might even be right. Unfortunately, as he is about to discover, these are not normal circumstances.
The hotel is the official residence of the annual Abu Dhabi triathlon and is teeming with race-ready long-distance triathletes, many of them card-carrying pros, piling their plates with healthy fare from the buffet bar. The normal rules of the hotel breakfast buffet have been turned on their head this morning. Doughnuts and croissants lie untouched, while the waiters are constantly replenishing the muesli and salad.
It’s the same story elsewhere in the hotel. The gym’s treadmills and bikes, often casually used by ladies who lunch, are being hammered into the middle of next week. The pool, instead of playing host to leisurely splashers and volleyballers, is overrun with cap-clad folk in wetsuits ploughing purposefully back and forth.
Back in the restaurant T-shirt man finds a quiet corner, eats quickly and departs just as fast, quite possibly for another hotel altogether. Meanwhile, the triathletes prepare for a serious race.
For anyone who has endured the joys of training through a northern hemisphere winter and its associated frozen fingers and dribbling nose, any chance for a run in the sun is to be leapt at. But beyond its obvious climatic advantages, the Abu Dhabi Triathlon course looks like a dream. It’s easy to see why it’s become a major headliner on the world tri circuit since its inauguration in 2009.
The sea swim, complete with golden sand beach start, is in the shimmering blue waters of the Persian Gulf, while the bike leg takes competitors out of the city into the desert along billiard table-smooth Tarmac before sending them hurtling around the state-of-the-art Yas Marina formula one circuit. After they pedal back into Abu Dhabi, the run follows the city’s waterfront and deposits exhausted finishers back on the beach where they started.
It’s an enticing menu and with assorted distances from an easily achievable sprint (750m swim, 50km bike, 5km run) right through to a long-distance headbanger (3km swim, 200km bike, 20km run), there’s something for everyone. I’m taking on what the organisers call the Short Distance course and its 1.5km swim, 100km bike and 10km run.
It turns out I’m in good company too, since a certain Alistair Brownlee of Olympic triathlon gold medal fame is racing the same course. I suspect our goals may be somewhat different: his probably isn’t just to survive.
Walk on the beach
Actually, this doesn’t seem too tall an order as I line up for the swim just after 8am. With the real heat of the day yet to come and the water a balmy 21˚C, it’s just cool enough for wetsuits to be allowed – a bonus for all mediocre swimmers like myself keen to take advantage of the buoyancy benefits of neoprene.
The klaxon goes and we leg it into the water. Having swum the course during the previous day’s practice session, I noticed you could wade some distance before needing to swim so as people all state-of-the-art Yas Marina formula one circuit. After they pedal back into Abu Dhabi, the run follows the city’s waterfront and deposits exhausted finishers back on the beach where they started.
Middle of the road
Half an hour later I’m back on the beach for a quick change in transition before leaping on to a super-light carbon-fibre Bianchi Oltre XR Athena EPS road bike. Now this I am looking forward to. After a frigid couple of winter weeks getting used to the bike on southern England’s grimy, pothole-strewn roads, being able to get my head down properly in the sun looks like sheer bliss.
For a short while it is, as I sail along with the speedo showing higher average speeds than I’ve seen in a long time. Then things start going south. First comes the headwind that settles in as soon as I am in the desert proper. The speedo drops correspondingly. Then comes the boredom.
While the bike course delivers on its promise of being smooth and flat, it does so by being a closed motorway.
As I now know, cycling on an empty motorway for 100km in a featureless desert is chronically, desperately, incredibly dull. Without a change in scenery or even a corner to speak of, it quickly starts to feel like being on a turbo trainer. Except that, thanks to the climate and headwind, it’s actually like being on a turbo going nowhere inside an oven, with someone pointing the world’s largest hairdryer at you.
The tedium means a lap of the Yas Marina circuit just before halfway is a real soul-stirring delight. Unfortunately, it’s over in minutes and makes the return to the monotonous drudge of the motorway even more painful. Gah. Taking solace from the fact that at least I’m not doing the long course – whose 200km cycle is made up of further loops of this infernal road – I dig in for the rest of the journey to transition two.
By now it’s midday and, while the pros and handiest age-groupers have bagged their runs ahead of the day’s fiercest heat, us steadier competitors are about to have our suffering cranked up a notch. Thankfully, the aid stations are loaded with ice-cold sponges, water and cola, which grateful runners grab by the handful.
Roasting like an ant under a magnifying glass but still running, I cross the line at the beach I left five hours earlier a mere 487 places behind Brownlee, who has indeed comprehensively smashed the competition. And that’s despite him getting lost during the bike section.
Back in the buffet the following morning, the final transition is under way as the triathletes ebb away to catch flights and normal breakfast service is slowly resumed. I guiltlessly grab a plate of doughnuts and tuck in.
Thanks to Bianchi (opens in new tab), Polaris (opens in new tab) and Cycleworx (opens in new tab) for the Bike Pod Pro hardcase bike box. Warren Pole is an ambassador for 33Shake (opens in new tab) sports nutrition.
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