This gave us a bit of a minor panic attack when we noticed the day before (Ubers aren’t so easy to catch at 5am in the desert) but we thankfully sorted a cheap and cheerful hire car and were all set!
In our defence, it USED to be in RAK but they changed the course this year (I guess after we’d registered). No idea why, but maybe they were looking for an even faster course.
The course itself, well, for someone like me who can sometimes feel that a circular athletics track is hilly, is well suited: reclaimed land is by design (I think?) pretty much flat and this didn’t disappoint. From the top of the Doubletree Hotel from where it starts, I reckon you could watch the entire race with a pair of binoculars. Part of the reason for this too is that this new batch of reclaimed land is, well, new.
Al Marjan Island will probably be covered in 6 months’ time with twenty 5 star hotels but for now it’s a lovely corniche, lots of wasteland and a very nice Doubletree hotel (with excellent toilets mind you, more on that later).
If you’re going for a PB or, you know, if you’re in the mood for it, a world record, you don’t really care too much about the sights. This is probably why the top of the field is so strong, with about 15 sub-60 runners present. The $100,000 prize money for a world record probably helped too.
Prior to the race, we had a couple of days in Dubai. I’ll be honest and say that I really didn’t expect to think much of it up front, in that I don’t like spending money and I’m not overly keen on highly conservative societies. However, humble pie and all that, I was pleasantly surprised by it, though with limitations still.
The best way to describe it is probably as being a bit like Canary Wharf on steroids on a scorching hot summer day. Super clean, functional, every British retail shop you can think of, with added sunshine. Oh and towers which have more architectural magic than sense. Buuuuttt…dunno. It has everything – yet also seems to just lack something. Authenticity, history, culture? Technically it has them all and who are we to judge. Maybe because it feels “wrong” that so many people could thrive in, well, the middle of the desert with so few of the resources that you normally need to survive. I suspect part of it is because it’s all built on the success of oil resources and me frowning at that but, again, who are we to judge. It certainly feels like a house of cards to build so much so rapidly with such a high dependency on one commodity but hey, time will tell!
Running wise, to answer the big question, it’s alright ish. Other than wonky GPS between skyscrapers, oh and the humidity and 30C heat in the evening (and we were here during the cool season), the roads are pretty wide and tended to have pavements.
Female runners seemed to be ok running in normal running attire, though there may be exceptions in parts of town and for non western women.
Anyway, back to the actual race. As mentioned, deserts = hot. So races in desert = effingly early start. In this instance, 7am with a mandatory 6am arrival at the car park, add 30 minutes leeway, 30 minutes drive and 30 minutes to scoop the gunk out of our eyes and slap ourselves awake and we were getting up at 4.30am. On our holidays. What. Is. Wrong. With. Us. (Or rather me, Pippa might point out)
5.45am and we were in a surprisingly well laid out temporary parking lot in the pitch black desert. Thankfully, the fluorescence (or iridescence) of our bright green and pink Nike Vaporflys allowed us to find our way. And quickly so at that too.
The starting area was pretty well laid out and easy to find, it being the only building on this spit. Toilets were sparse but the bigger issue was that, being an elder person now, I have my routine. And despite my best efforts, the turd tap was definitely shut at this ungodly time. Fine in a normal circumstance, but not when you’re about to run a half marathon. And the queues were getting bigger. And the clock ticking by. However, years of business travel meant I had a trick up my sleeve: go to the doubletree and find the floor with the gym on it, you don’t normally need a key card to access it. And there, on the 9th floor, in all their splendor were three toilets with no queue and all the peace and quiet required to dump my dung. The lavender-scented hand moisturizer was an excellent addition race organizers should consider. Anyway, by now, I had 12 minutes left and really had to get a move on so this shall end the mandatory chapter on my bowel movements. You’re welcome.
A little sprint to the starting line and a rare pleasant surprise: the starting pens are not that crowded! They’ve actually made them the right size, so I can easily hop over.
The start itself was a bit messy: it was delayed by a few minutes because of vehicles on the course (this happens). No one cut the tape that was holding us back so with about 10 seconds to go, we sheepishly just had to push our way through and hope no one behind us got decapitated. At that point, about half a dozen of the elite runners surged forward. They got pushed back behind the start line, but nerves got the better of them and all took off with about 3 seconds to go. Which is pretty unusual for an elite race. One went and I guess they all followed like sheep. You’d think this might screw up any claims to world records but no one seemed to mind. Me being a few seconds back, I didn’t cross the line until the countdown was over so any world records I would claim would be safe!
On a side note, in case you wonder whether the pros have swallowed the Vaporfly marketing claims, take a look at this photo!
So we were off, once the Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah (quite a title!) had pressed the button. I was back into my bad old habits pretty quickly, knocking out far too fast kilometres for the first two km but, in my defence, there was a little bit of method to my madness this time, as I assumed that it was best to gain a few seconds while the sun wasn’t fully out and humidity and temperatures were still bearable. That or I set off too fast.
The course as I said earlier was far from inspirational. See photo below.
As also mentioned earlier, the race was stacked for elite runners, but it quickly got pretty sparse between 70 and 90 minute runners and I was on my own after about one kilometer all the way to the end (other than those overtaking me).
As it happens, I lost about 15 seconds/km between the first 5km and the last 5km (it got hot, OK!) yet only lost… one place!
In actual fact, my mind drifted so much at 5km that I even managed to miss a turn, cutting through the thousands of cones on the course (you couldn’t fault them for cones: one every 10m on both sides along whole course!) to go the full way round a roundabout instead of going a U-turn. Thankfully, I was being caught up by a few runners at that point who shouted out at me. I probably only lost 10 meters in the end but that’s, mmm 4 minutes lost right?!
My legs were already starting to feel a bit heavy but you play the usual game in your head at this point “ok, one more km” “ok make it to 10km on track etc” until you really can’t any more.
In my case, this hit around the 15km mark where I was furthest out on the spit in the middle of nowhere. Sun was out, I was tired, I was questioning my life choices. However, I was not questioning my choice to take a water bottle at every single water station every 2.5km: an environmental disaster with the thousands of water bottles but a god send and tough if the runners at the back had no water after I went through. (No, not really, they had a large stock!)
Usual race etiquette is that you more or less dump the water bottle on the side of road once you’ve used it or, if they have bins, aim for them. I wasn’t too sure before the race how strict UAE would be – after all, they have fines if you chew gum on the tube. Here, it seemed that international rules apply: drop your water as you will, and they’ll even throw in the bonus that women are allowed to wear shorts. I was a good boy mind you and held onto empty gel packets until the end: that felt like a step too far in a pristine (if not pretty deserted) land.
After 19km, you go back past the Doubletree for another – slightly cruel – one kilometer out and back leg. By now, the elites were finished and being massaged. Despite the huzzah beforehand, the men didn’t get a world record but the women did. This means I’ve now run in the two half marathons (Copenhagen and RAK) where the current men’s and women’s world records have been set. I don’t think there are many others who have.
Actually, Pippa has and she was having a belter of a race! I had finished in a forgettable 1h21 which just gave me enough time to get back to the 19km mark to see her fly by en route to smashing her PB in 1h42. It was a lot easier to race and see her when she ran nearer the 2h mark!
Once she was done, only three challenges for the day remained. 1) get back in time to the hotel before they stop serving breakfast 2) eat the 5 large plates I took 3) digest said plates. That, by far, was the toughest exercise of the day. Oh. My. Effing. God. In one day, two awful realisations: I appear to have lost both the speed from my youth as well as thr gargantuan digestive capabilities from my childhood. Ugh. Next I’ll start developing unbreakable morning toilet routines and… oh… wait…