Tuesday, March 22, 2011

12th Place Abu Dhabi International Triathlon

I’m back in the States after a whirlwind trip to the United Arab Emirates, specifically Abu Dhabi, for the first real race of my season. Having never been to the UAE, I had only the stories of others as a guide, but maintained a relatively open mind about the experience. I knew that the bike leg would be long. I knew that the field was deep. I knew that it was a wealthy region undergoing tremendous growth. I knew the landscape was mostly a barren desert. The rest was left to imagination as I crossed the Atlantic on a jetstream...

Somewhat jetlagged and disoriented, I checked in the very nice race hotel, compliments of the very generous race organizers, and attempted to sleep. The pattern which would prevail for the next 3 nights emerged: Fitful, restless attempts at sleep. One hour here, 30 minutes there, and not more than about 3 or 4 hours total, and then it was light out and time to take care of pre-race duties. I did a little ocean swim in the back of the hotel, ran a quick 4 miles, and briefly spun out the legs before checking in my bike and gear bags. This was some of the fastest turnaround I had done for a race of this caliber, but I decided it was best to avoid interrupting my training too much for a race that wasn't a season goal.

Race morning came swiftly, and I enjoyed the company of a former teammate, Jessica Jacobs as we walked through the opulent grounds of the Emirates Palace to the transition and swim start area. Professionals enjoyed top-notch treatment at the event, and the bike racks were all customized with our names and nationalities. Very cool.

The swim was a two loop affair, and after a couple short delays, we were sprinting from the beach to the questionably non-wetsuit waters of the ocean. I got out okay on the inside buoy line and found a good pack early. Halfway through the first lap we were gapped from the leaders, but I stayed comfortable in the chase pack. It wasn't a great swim, but it wasn't terrible either. When I saw Llanos, McCormack, Gambles, and a few other strong riders within the first kilometers, my spirit was lifted some and I settled in for a long day in the saddle...

And when I say long day, I mean 124 miles of wind, sand, and heat. Abu Dhabi is not known for it's stunning vistas (save some dunes I discovered later), so it was a lot of miles in a moonscape setting, passing little more than highway guardrails and one stand of mangrove trees. Still, I embraced the austerity of the place as a true mental toughness test, and knuckled down. After one loop of very fast riding, our group was completely shattered. Some had dropped, others fallen off, and even a couple had made a heroic bid to get across to the leaders. I remained in a small group as we passed through the Formula 1 racing circuit and then back and forth through the desolate stretches of Emirate desert. By the last time we reached town and headed out for the final half-lap, I dropped the other riders and made a break, riding solo for about the last 30 miles. I felt surprisingly in control, and had managed to stay on top of my nutrition, but I was losing time to the lead group ahead...

Into T2 I just kept in mind that it was a very hot day and people would be slowing down. It was a bit of a mental boost knowing that I would not have to tackle a full marathon too, and I took off with the best of intentions. The first lap was a very solid effort, and then I realized that my chances of picking off in anyone in front were very unlikely, as well as being overtaken. Not proud to admit that my mind drifted a bit to complacency, and I settled into a more comfortable "maintenance" pace and tried to recoup fluid in the last miles. Coming through the finishing stretch, I was very happy to have executed a solid race from start to finish, coming 12th against a Kona-esque field. I was two spots out of the money, and pretty far back, but it was an excellent training day, and gave me a very real confidence boost that I could be competitive against such a deep field in savage conditions.

After chatting it up with the boys from Specialized afterwards, I passed out at the hotel, and then got ready for some Abu fun. My one day after the race consisted of seeing the amazing mosque, gold market, and then participating in a crazy dune bashing/camel riding/sandboarding/dinner expedition in the middle of the sandy desert with good friends.

Abu Dhabi is like no place I have ever seen, and despite harsh conditions, it was a perfect race for mental toughness, and undoubtedly provided a major fitness boost early in the year... very good feeling to have the cobwebs blown out before I undertake the more important races. I have no regrets about traveling over, and I will be back to race again next year.

Achievement, I have heard, is largely a product of steadily raising one's level of aspiration and expectation. Without a doubt this race marks one more step in the right direction.

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